‘Sergio’ review: political biopic turned old school romance picks its heart over its head

A UN diplomat forms the focus of this Netflix docudrama, but it's left weak at the knees by an inane love story

Those who like their biographical dramas well-done with generous splashes of red-blooded romance are likely to find much to enjoy in the traditional stylings of Sergio. Those looking for something a little more daring and unusual, however, might be left a bit nonplussed despite the presence of Narcos’ Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas (Knives Out) and the story of a significant figure who observed bullets and bombs during the 2003 Iraq invasion.

For filmmaker Greg Barker (Manhunt, The Final Year), Sergio signals a return to familiar territory. In 2009, he dug deep into the life of UN High Commissioner Sergio Viera de Mello in a documentary for HBO. 11 years later, and with the help of screenwriter Craig Borten (Dallas Buyer’s Club), he has turned to Samantha Power’s book, Chasing The Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World, to document his life once more. The enduring appeal is obvious. In a long and distinguished career, Vieira de Mello rarely shied away from plunging feet-first into dangerous environments the world over. He could often be found negotiating with warlords and tiptoeing on delicate diplomatic tightropes to bring about peace.

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This film opens with Viera de Mello recording a three-minute welcome video for new employees to the UN. He posits that the real rewards lie not behind a desk, but on the frontline. Sad irony proves that this guiding principle came at a personal price as the film fast forwards to 19th August 2003. The UN headquarters at Canal Hotel in central Baghdad has been bombed. Amidst the rubble, Sergio lies stricken, but conscious. Efforts are made to free him.

Utilising the approach taken by Oliver Stone in his 9/11 drama World Trade Center, Barker uses the dire predicament of post-blast immobility to delve into different episodes and chapters of the character’s adult life. It is an effective device that ramps up the tension and provides the viewer with a narrative roadmap. He weaves archive footage of newly liberated Iraqis tearing down Saddam Hussein’s statue and news dispatches into the dramatic depiction.

Sergio
‘Sergio’ is streaming now on Netflix. Credit: Netflix

For better or worse, Barker eschews the temptation for politicking and the relationship between de Mello and Larriera underpins Sergio. Whilst Moura’s Viera de Mello’s twinkly-eyed, toothy-grinned charm is guilty at times of appearing conceited rather than authentic, the scintillating chemistry between Moura and de Armas that was present in Olivier Assayas’s The Wasp Network from last year is replicated here.

It is just as well, as the romance is coated with such a thick brush that it almost induces nausea. Nevertheless, the emotional crescendo in the final third is nothing if not effective. Despite the best of intentions though, it is hard not to feel short-changed from the lack of potent insight into the Iraq invasion and the UN’s role there to balance out the love story. As a slice of old-fashioned drama Sergio ticks all the boxes but, unlike the man himself, it is no notable game-changer.

Details

  • Director: Greg Parker
  • Starring: Wagner Moura, Ana de Armas, Brían F. O’Byrne
  • Release date: April 17 (Netflix)
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