The spotlight isn’t the natural habitat for most diplomats. With a few exceptions, they tend to work discreetly behind the scenes so chances are you’d struggle to name more than a couple of the better known ones. In which case, the name Sergio Vieira De Mello may not ring a bell.
In charge of the UN’s operation in Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he was a career diplomat with an unconventional approach to his job – some might have called him “the people’s diplomat” – and he’s in the full glare of that spotlight in Netflix’s latest, Sergio, which traces his life up to his time in Baghdad in 2003. As he lies trapped among the debris after a bomb devastates his office building in the city, he reflects on his life – his role in East Timor gaining independence from Indonesia, how he came to head up the mission in Iraq, his personal life, the decisions he made and their repercussions. A career where he tried to put the needs of ordinary people first and where he continually faced opposition from world leaders.
Director Greg Barker has moved away from his usual factual stomping ground to take a second look at Sergio, eleven years after his documentary of the same name. It explains why there are times when the film feels like less of a biopic and more of a historical record of his career but, for the most part, Barker constructs his narrative to be a drama sprinkled with a few thriller elements. And it’s a life full of incident, most of it political, so his challenge is to make a story based around words rather than actions into something more interesting that it inherently sounds. In the main, he succeeds. While the structure and use of flashbacks is over-familiar, he’s been gifted with a charismatic central character who is portrayed with humanity and complexity by Wagner Moura (Narcos), somebody just as much at home among ordinary people as he is at the higher echelons of power. He’s also smart enough to surround himself with people with talents and attitudes that aren’t necessarily the same as his but certainly complement them. While right hand man, Gil Loescher (Brian F O’Byrne) is, in reality, a composite character, his more traditional view of the role of the diplomat is the perfect counterbalance to his less conventional boss.
There is, of course, a romantic side to the story, Sergio’s relationship with colleague Carolina Larriera, played by Ana de Armas is a young woman under no illusions about his priorities – he’s already married with two young sons and even more married to his job. And, while it’s based in fact, it’s also the least successful aspect of the movie, with some of the scenes towards the end overly soft-focussed giving them an uncharacteristically sickly tone. They contrast especially with a strongly anti-American tone during the Iraq-set sequences, underlined by an almost reptilian and cold-eyed performance from Bradley Whitford as Paul Bremer, in charge of the US-led coalition in charge of the country following the invasion. His assertion that “the UN works for us” exemplifies everything that Sergio is fighting against.
While its style doesn’t offer anything innovative and its running time of just under two hours would have benefited from a judicious trim, Sergio still manages to be an engaging portrayal of a rebel with a cause, somebody for whom living among the chaos and distress of war was the norm. It’s also a reminder of a piece of modern history from less than 20 years ago but which, especially at the moment, seems even further in the distance.
Drama, History, Biography | Cert: 15 | Netflix | 17 April 2020 | Netflix | Dir. Greg Barker | Wagner Moura, Ana De Armas, Brian F O’Byrne, Garrett Dillahunt, Bradley Whitford.