Well, we got back on the good movie train last week, let’s see if Netflix can keep it rolling to the next station, as the lack of cinema availability continues to hamper the ability to enjoy new releases. This time around it is a very unique looking production: a biopic of a Brazilian UN diplomat, based on a book by a US diplomat and a documentary on the same subject by the same director, with the guy best known for playing Pablo Escobar in the lead and Ana de Armas, my Best Actress of 2019, right alongside him.
Plenty to be intrigued by then, and that’s before you consider the details of the story at play. The Iraq War has been the genesis for some great films, and some not so great ones. Sergio has everything it needs to be the former, if only because of the point of view it can provide. The title character was a significant presence in Iraq for a period after the American invasion, as well as in nation-building exercises in various parts of the globe. That kind of perspective is under-studied in films depicting the era in my opinion, for reasons that are partly covered in the film itself. Did Sergio make the best of this opportunity and of this cast, or is it yet another case of too soon in terms of its basis, and tired “standing ovation” in terms of its structure?
Sergio Viera de Mello (Wagner Moura) is trapped underneath a heap of rubble following a bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. As an American Sergeant (Garret Dillahunt) struggles to free him, Sergio remembers moments from his life as a UN diplomat: his role as transitional authority in a nascent East Timor; the delicate balancing act with the American occupation and Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitfield) he tried to pull off in Iraq; and his relationship with fellow UN worker and economics expert Caroline (de Armas).
This was a film that I really wanted to like. The cast, the events being portrayed, that sense of seeing that different perspective, these were all things that tilted me towards seeing Sergio in a positive way. If only then that the film was actually worthy of such bias, but it is regrettably not, being instead fatally compromised in its narrative structure, to an extent that is ruinously distracting, along with some other problems.
Sergio is just off, almost right from its opening scene, a bookend piece where Moura’s de Mello creates what I assume is an orientation video for new recruits to the UN’s human rights wing. He warns enterprising new diplomats that their duty is out in the field, not in an office (delivering his point from an office…), in a video that is apparently something the real figure actually did. The sense is Moura’s depiction of de Mello is imitation more than performance.
He just can’t get across, to the required degree, the power of de Mello’s drive and commitment, or, save one or two instances, the empathy he had with the rest of mankind. He’s also just a bit too heroic in this film, with some doubts about his quality as a father about the only negative to his personality, other than traditional biopic bullishness. Moura is a good enough actor that there are moments of greatness shining through, but in line with these faults in the script, he is never able to escape that sense that we are seeing an impression being done. That is just one example of the off-kilter feel of the film, that can’t decide if it wants to focus on de Mello trapped beneath rubble, de Mello nation-building in East Timor, de Mello creating a relationsip with Ana de Armas’ Caroline or a few other things.
To illustrate my point, I can offer no better example than the baffling decision to have two separate instances of a flashback within an already-in-progress flashback, choices that will make you wonder if there is a scene missing. Sergio is not Inception and Greg Barker (and writer Craig Borten, who did much the same in The Dallas Buyers Club) is not Christopher Nolan: it can’t pull such twists and turns off. Instead, they simply make Sergio feel more disjointed and more off-kilter, the absolute wrong sense to be trying to engender in a biopic about a UN diplomat. Sergio will leave any audience confused at points, being one of the few instances where a little bit of tell would have been preferable to pace-shattering show, an exception that would prove the rule, but an exception nonetheless.
Compare to another non-traditional biopic of this year, A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood, or 2019’s At Eternity’s Gate, and you will see key differences in the strength of the performances, the engagement possible with the subject matter through a somewhat experimental approach and higher production values. And then compare to more traditionally structured biopics of recent times, like Tolkien or Fighting With My Family, and you will films of less flash in their make-up, but much more watchable or re-watchable. Barker seems like a director who wants to re-invent the wheel, but its hard to square that circle.
The best of Sergio is those sections set in East Timor, where de Mello must try and transition the country towards independence, and its rebel leaders towards politics. This goes hand-in-hand with his first interactions with Caroline, played with aplomb by de Armas. Their relationship evolves slowly, and gives Sergio some understandable human emotion to go alongside the natural reaction to the plight of the Timorese and Iraqis. If there are parts of the film I really didn’t like, then this exploration of the key female figure in de Mello’s life is something I really did like, even if de Armas, for all of her skill in a look and a glance, is playing a character that revolves around de Mello, and even falls into the dreaded role of being a plot obstacle to be circled around before the end. But, those East Timor scenes are just one of the reasons that portion of the film is its best.
The dichotomy of duty and love, exploring the human reality behind East Timor’s quest for independence (an interview scene with a local is probably the film’s best moment), the frustrations of slow-boil diplomacy and the well-earned triumphs at its conclusion, there is a lot about these sections to recommend. Indeed, I feel like you could have fleshed them out and made a while film of them, a bit more palatable than the almost misery-pornish scenes of de Mello and others trapped underneath rubble in Baghdad. If the point is to show de Mello as the kind of dutiful, caring and empathetic human rights watchdog that you want him to be seen as, then showing his biggest success in that role is surely preferable to showing, arguably, his biggest failure?
If the film does nothing else, it is good to be reminded about the idiocy of one Paul Bremer, played with effective imitation by Bradley Whitfield, who has really settled into his later career pigeon-holing as a punchable villain. As someone who carried out some in-depth academic study into the immediate post-war disaster that was the US occupation, it is apropos to say that Bremer holds a huge personal responsibility for the way that things collapsed in Iraq, something he has never been adequately called to task for (or charged for, being frank). His portrayal here as an arrogant, out-of-his-depth stooge is thus somewhat gratifying to see, and Sergio may have benefited with a bit more of him in the frame, as the kind of neo-conservative hawk that could serve as the embodiment of the things de Mello stands against. It’s never a bad thing to be reminded of the injustice and clumsiness of what the Bush administration, through Bremer, was doing in late 2003.
Sergio is a basic enough production from a cinematography standpoint. Greg Baker is a documentarian by trade, with a focus on humanitarian crisis spots, so this kind of dramatisation may have been beyond his capabilities, at least in terms of really excelling. There is nothing stand-out about how Sergio looks, and in fact the opposite is frequently the case: the narrative jumping is shot and edited a bit shoddily, and undercuts any bit of drama that Barker is trying to project. For example, early-on , when de Mello’s UN team arrives at their Baghdad HQ for the first time, we see him leave a car to engage US soldiers guarding the hotel. It is more than an hour later when we flashback to that moment to get the resolution, by which point you no longer really care. There are other poor moments also: having your principal outline, direct to the audience, the merits of being a human rights field agent at the beginning and end of your film is not good visual story-telling. At others moments, like a kiss in the rain between Sergio and Caroline at the midpoint, Baker and cinematographer Adrian Teijido (a veteran of Moura’s Narcos) cross into the realms of truly sugar sweet.
There was plenty of potential here, with the cast and the story to be told, but unfortunately it was nearly entirely wasted. Whether it was because the director was out of his league, or because the source material just wasn’t as good as it may have initially appeared, Sergio is by-and-large a disappointment. The fault cannot rest with either Moura or de Armas, who do about as much as can be expected, but this will not go down as either of their finest work. For a biopic to truly succeed, you have to get across the complexity of the subject, and Sergio does not do that in my opinion. One cannot think lowly of the attempt to perhaps subvert expectations with the narrative wandering that was employed here, but, sad as it is to say, Sergio would be a better story with a more traditional structure, even if that would move it more into the realm of standing ovation biopic. That might not make much of an impact, but at least it would not have been bad. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).