On 19 August 2003, a car bomb exploded outside the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad. As a result, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Sérgio Vieira de Mello and Gil Loescher were pinned under tons of rubble after the blast. Six years later, in 2009, Greg Barker released a documentary covering the events that transpired. And now, more than a decade after the doc, Barker returns with a feature-length adaption of the tragedy and the man at the story’s center. “Sergio” fuses together the director’s journalistic style with cinematic intent, to recount the days, months, and years leading up to the attack in a biopic that often lacks urgency.
“Sergio” is split between three acts: the diplomat’s initial trip to Iraq, his love affair, and the final rescue attempt. Wagner Moura plays Sérgio while Brían F. O’Byrne portrays his right-hand man Gil. The pair arrive in Iraq after the initial 2003 invasion, to calm the country and set up legal elections. Barker and his editor Claudia Castello intercut between Sérgio overviewing the human rights violations committed by the United States and archival news coverage from the era. He also introduces Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford), leading the invasion, as a hawk to Sérgio’s dove sensibility. The two men are emblematic of a powerful tug of war between idealism and realism with regard to war and occupation. However, when the biopic leaves the Bremer character on the sidelines, after the terrorist attack on the UN, it weakens the dramatic quality of the narrative.
Instead, “Sergio” transitions from the counterterrorism first act to the romantic courtship second act. There, Sérgio meets Carolina (Ana de Armas, who’s the glue of the film) while jogging on the roads of East Timor three years prior to the present-day events. Barker and Castello intercut between Sérgio’s time in East Timor and his being buried under the rubble. The flashback scenes are open and vibrant, in sharp contrast to the extreme close-up claustrophobic milky and smokey lighting in the debris scenes when Sérgio is pinned underneath stone slabs.
During the second act, not only do Barker and Castello intercut, but they also infold. Between East Timor and present-day scenes, they also flashback to Sérgio’s life in Cambodia and his memories with his sons in Rio de Janeiro. The competing storylines require a delicate balance. One that the biopic never strikes. Nevertheless, Barker remains transfixed upon Carolina and Sérgio’s blossoming relationship. While the diplomat is determined and is known as the “World’s Mr. Fix-it,” Carolina is ebullient and intuitive. However, Moura’s characterization feels off.
While Sérgio to some degree operated in an understated but calculating fashion, Moura portrays him as a machine. He’s stiff, and Sérgio often gives the rank of a career politician rather than the malevolent figure Barker wants to portray him as. Instead, it depends upon de Armas to infuse “Sergio” with life, even if it’s as a love interest who only exists for the emotional shortcomings of the diplomat. Because while Carolina also works for the UN, she’s not shown doing much UN stuff. Instead, she spends much of the run time breaking her lover out of his shell. And for these purposes, de Armas instills depth unto her character that probably lacked it in the script.
Nevertheless, it’s the aforementioned intercutting and infolding that slows “Sergio” to a crawl by its final act. In fact, any emotional resolve is spent between these cuts. Barker takes his initially enthralling documentary and dilutes the story with this new feature, creating melodramatic lightness without an affectingly heavy touch due to the tepid tone and wheezing tempo. In short, it snoozes. [C]