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a woman and man stand in the rain
Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura in Sergio.
Photo: Netflix

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Politics and love don’t mix in Netflix’s biopic Sergio

Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas star in this biopic of Sérgio Vieira de Mello

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The last narrative film distributed by Netflix that was based on real events, The Red Sea Diving Resort, was a mess of clichés with a bad case of white-savior complex. Sergio, the streaming giant’s latest stab at tackling history, fares a little better. Greg Barker, a filmmaker known for his documentaries Ghosts of Rwanda and Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden, turns his eye to feature storytelling with a biographical drama about United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello, based on Barker’s documentary of the same name. Vieira de Mello was a storied diplomat, assisting in hostage situations, helping usher formerly occupied countries to independence, and coordinating humanitarian operations through his career, and Barker’s obvious care and respect for his subject makes Sergio stirring to watch. But as Craig Borten’s script leans more and more on romance, the film flounders.

Borten’s big gimmick is clever: he has the bulk of the film play out in a series of flashbacks as Sergio (Wagner Moura) is stranded in the debris of the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq. Free from having to tell Sergio’s story chronologically, Borten and Barker instead skip around through events, establishing the diplomat’s bona fides in terms of his genuine care and skill at championing those not in power (focusing specifically on his guiding East Timor to independence), then filling in the details of his personal life and his stationing in Iraq.

a man and his two young sons
Sergio (Moura) with his family.
Photo: Karima Shehata/Netflix

Ana de Armas stars as economist Carolina Larriera, who became involved with Sergio (though he was still married at the time) while they were working in East Timor. The movie uses the evolution of their bond and Sergio’s willingness to commit to a relationship (any relationship, as he tells her early on that he’s “not too good with indefinite assignments”) as a mirror for how seriously he took the work he was doing, and the people he was helping. The setup there feels a little shallow, especially as Sergio and Carolina’s romance takes up more and more time, stealing dramatic heft from Sergio’s humanitarian efforts.

Carolina’s presence helps establish Sergio’s human side as she opens a door into his personal life. But that role could just as easily have gone to Sergio’s right-hand man Gil (a composite character played by Brían F. O’Byrne), who ends up trapped in the rubble with him. Their friendship spans years and countries, and is telling about both Sergio’s work and Sergio as a person. The push and pull between Gil and Sergio is arguably the same dynamic Sergio encounters in dealing with the U.S. government in Iraq. During their time in East Timor, Gil doesn’t always see the people they deal with as equals. He looks down on the non-college-educated rebels, but Sergio makes him see differently through how he deals with the situation on a human level. In Iraq, Sergio has to deal with something similar, as he has to convince L. Paul Bremer III (Bradley Whitford) that reopening Abu Ghraib isn’t the answer to ending resistance in Iraq.

But those details get lost in the dreamy sequences portraying Carolina and Sergio’s romance, ranging from chance meetings while jogging to walks in the rain to grand romantic gestures, complete with paper hearts and string lights. These sequences don’t have much to say about Sergio, whereas the detour into his personal life that doesn’t involve her — he has dinner with his sons, and, absent as he is, forgets their food allergies — says volumes more about him and his imperfections.

three people sit together
Sergio (Moura) listens to a Timorese weaver.
Photo: Netflix

Though the romance is filled with clichés, the dramatization of Sergio’s work feels vital. The key to his success is his humanity — he insists that the people he meets simply call him by his first name, and he talks to everyone, from soldiers on the street to political leaders, one-to-one. He also understands why people might resist the U.N.’s efforts, especially as they cooperate with the U.S. government. And his work trying to fix parts of American history that are often glossed over is fascinating.

Amazon’s The Report is less a biopic and more a dramatization of historical events, but it still focuses on a single character in the midst of political turmoil — Daniel Jones, played by Adam Driver, who led an investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Where that movie succeeds is in focusing on presenting the facts of what was going on in the aftermath of 9/11, and in telling the truth. Sergio excels when it’s doing the same thing, but its bigger story about Sergio’s humanitarian efforts succumbs to its love story. What should be a story about one man’s extraordinary love of humanity turns into a story about his ordinary love of one woman.

Sergio is streaming on Netflix now.

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