International diplomats tend to go largely unnoticed, but Sérgio Vieira de Mello was as close as they come to being a celebrity. The Brazilian born de Mello rose through the United Nations ranks due to his humanitarian efforts, his tireless quest for peace and his steady advocacy for those trapped in war-torn regions. On August 19, 2003 a truck loaded with explosives drove up to the UN headquarters in Baghdad and detonated. Sérgio Vieira de Mello was among the 22 people killed.
The new Netflix Original simply titled “Sergio” tells chunks of de Mello’s story from an unexpectedly unique point of view. The film opens with the bombing which left de Mello (passionately played by Wagner Moura) and his top aide Gil Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne) pinned under a pile of rubble. We then bounce back-and-forth on the timeline as Sergio reflects on significant moments of his life. While the approach makes sense of the fractured storytelling, it doesn’t make it any less messy.
Director Greg Barker and writer Craig Borten hit a few of the high points from Sergio’s career. They touch on his efforts to ease the boiling tensions in East Timor which had been invaded and occupied by neighboring Indonesia. It shows bits of his work in Iraq, butting heads with George Bush’s envoy Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) over the withdrawal of American troops. Yet while the filmmakers clearly admire de Mello and his work, they show surprisingly little interest in digging deeper and exploring what drove the man to risk life and limb for the persecuted.
Instead, much of the movie focuses on Sergio the romantic. Although married, he develops a fiery attraction to a beautiful U.N. economic adviser Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). Interestingly, the movie doesn’t make much of a judgement on their affair and his wife gets nothing more than fleeting mentions. In fact the only real negative image of Sergio is in the movie’s brief depiction of his relationship with his two sons. Otherwise it’s a doting portrayal that removes any potential scandalous edge. As a result the film’s Sergio is missing the complexity and depth that comes with being flawed people.
While the heavy emphasis on the affair is a puzzling choice especially in light of Sergio’s accomplishments, there’s no denying the simmering chemistry between Moura and de Armas. They’re no strangers, also working together in Olivier Assayas’ Cuban political thriller “Wasp Network”, a Netflix film set to release later this year. Here the romantic tension is palpable even when their scenes wander into sentiment. But it still undercuts de Mello’s profound work in the field which only gets what amounts to the bullet point treatment.
When the film is chronicling Sergio’s diplomatic journey it moves between inspirational and perplexing. For those who don’t know de Mello, the sheer scope of the movie reveals the importance of his impact even though on a mostly surface level. But it’s in the handling of the details where things get a little murky. For example, if you patch together a handful of seemingly damning scenes there is a subtle implication that the American military presence in Iraq was the indirect cause of the U.N. bombing. In reality, Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility stating that de Mello was targeted due to his work leading East Timor to independence. If explored that could be the kind of dramatic layer the movie really needs.
So we end up with an almost saintly portrait that glosses over milestones, mostly skips internal conflicts, and favors a passionate yet overcooked romance. The performances are strong, vibrant, and committed and you can squeeze enough out of the story to get a general idea of who Sérgio Vieira de Mello was. But if you’re looking for a deeper, more informative dive and want more high-stakes historical drama, “Sergio” will probably leave you feeling shortchanged.
VERDICT – 2 STARS