Netflix film “Sergio” is a well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing biography drama film about one decent real-life figure who deserves a more interesting movie in my trivial opinion. While it certainly depicts its hero with lots of admiration and respect, the movie is often unfocused and superficial in terms of narrative and characterization, and that is a shame considering the commendable efforts from its charismatic lead performer.
Wagner Moura, a wonderful Brazilian actor who drew my attention for the first time via his electrifying turn in “Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within” (2010), plays Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a prominent high-ranking UN official who was sent to Iraq along with his colleagues shortly after the US Army invaded Iraq in 2003. Although de Mello and his colleagues tried their best for stabilizing Iraq, their passionate efforts were unfortunately thwarted by a sudden terrorist attack several months later, and he was one of unfortunate victims who died at that time.
Around the beginning of the film, Sérgio is helplessly stuck inside a heavily damaged building which has functioned as the UN headquarters in Baghdad, and then we see how much he and his colleagues including Gil (Brían F. O’Byrne) have struggled to do their job since arriving in Baghdad. Sérgio believes that the restoration process should be started as soon as possible, but then he often finds himself clashing with Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford), who functions as the envoy between him and the White House. Although Sérgio does not want to provoke the White House, he is quite concerned when Bremer is going to put those political prisoners in a certain infamous prison facility, and he eventually comes to decide to do something for preventing the situation from getting worse.
Unfortunately, when Sérgio and his colleagues are about to take the first forward step for their noble cause, that terrible incident happens. While it seems there is still some chance for his survival, the circumstance becomes gloomier because there is no possible way to get him out of the spot right now, and, to make matters worse, his physical condition becomes deteriorated more and more as time goes by.
Along with Sérgio’s fading mind, the movie frequently flashes back to his past memories including the one involved with how he came across Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas) in East Timor several years ago. While trying to find a peaceful way for the resolution for the longtime conflict between the Indonesian government and East Timor, Sérgio accidentally encountered this beautiful Argentine lady during his usual jogging hour, and she happened to be one of the UN officials working under him. Although they did not know each other much, it did not take much time for them to fall in love with each other, and Carolina certainly brought Sérgio some spirit he needed as struggling to balance his difficult position between the Indonesian government and East Timor.
The movie works best as observing how Sérgio and Carolina approach closer to each other. Carolina knows in advance that Sérgio is an older divorced man with two sons from his first marriage, but that does not stop her at all from getting attracted more to Sérgio, and Sérgio is happy to be with someone as professionally passionate as him. At one point, she shows him her modest but important micro-financing project among the local people of East Timor, and that indirectly inspires Sérgio to think of a simple solution for that complicated diplomatic matter between the Indonesian government and East Timor.
Even after their work in East Timor is over, Sérgio and Carolina remain emotionally attached to each other, and they come to consider living together in Rio de Janeiro, but then Sérgio is requested to handle the post-war status of Iraq. Later in the movie, there is a small but sincere moment between Sérgio and Carolina when Sérgio asks Carolina to go to Iraq along with him, and Ana de Armas, who recently drew more attention from us thanks to her splendid comic performance in “Knives Out” (2019), deftly handles her character’s complex emotions in addition to clicking well with her co-star on the screen.
However, the screenplay by Craig Borten, which is based on Samantha Power’s nonfiction book “Sergio: One Man’s Fight to Save the World” (the book is also the basis of director Greg Barker’s HBO documentary film “Sergio” (2009), by the way), does not serve the good performances from Moura and de Armas well. While trying to cram many different elements including Sérgio’s estranged relationship with his two sons into its 2-hour running time, the screenplay does not delve that deep into its hero’s efforts and accomplishments, and the movie accordingly comes to lose its narrative focus and momentum from time to time.
In contrast to Moura and de Armas, the other notable main cast members in the film are mostly under-utilized due to their functional roles, and that was another disappointment for me. Garret Dillahunt and Brían F. O’Byrne do not have much to do as stuck with their bland supporting characters, and Bradley Whitford manages to leave some impression while being as smug as required by his obnoxious role.
Overall, “Sergio” is buoyed a bit by the engaging star quality of Moura and de Armas, but it does not have enough human dimension to hold our attention, and I was often distracted by its contrived aspects during my viewing. It was not the total waste of time at least, but I must tell you that I am now considering watching Barker’s homonymous documentary, which is incidentally also available on Netflix at present.