Friday, January 31, 2020

Sundance ’20: Sergio

It was not exactly the United Nation’s finest hour when Turkey was tapped to co-chair the human rights committee that accredited NGO’s, despite its dismal record of press censorship and oppression of the Kurds. Hypocrisy and corruption have long been rife throughout the UN bureaucracy, especially during the days of Kofi Annan’s administration. The one shining exception was Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. He had the unique distinction among his UN peers for actually brokering equitable peace deals, but he was tragically killed by the Al-Qaeda faction that evolved into ISIS. After chronicling Vieira de Mello’s story in documentary form, Greg Barker retells it as the Netflix-produced narrative feature Sergio, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Vieira de Mello opposed the Iraq War—a fact Barker and screenwriter Craig Borten clearly do not want us to forget. In fact, they revel in his disagreements with Paul Bremer, the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq. Alas, it is no spoiler to mention the titular diplomat was killed during his Baghdad posting, because Barker uses it as a narrative device, flashing backwards to happy times, while U.S. Sergeants Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine, firemen in civilian-life, struggle to unearth Vieira de Mello and his colleague, Gil Loescher, from the precarious rubble. Obviously, the prognosis looks bad.

Those better days include Vieira de Mello’s tenure as the UN’s Transitional Administrator for East Timor, where he negotiated the new nation’s peaceful independence from Indonesia. East Timor is also where the divorced High Commissioner meets Carolina Larriera, a micro-finance expert, who becomes his lover and UN colleague. Unfortunately, such business leads Vieira de Mello to neglect his sons. Indeed, family time is rare and awkward for the diplomat (sadly, a big pot of delicious shrimp moqueca gets neglected during a short-lived family reunion).

Sergio’s biases are blatantly obvious, but they still probably could have been worse. Arguably, Bradley Whitford’s cartoonish portrayal of the nebbish Bremer as cynical villain is the most egregious aspect of the film. On the other hand, it forthrightly depicts the heroic efforts of von Zehle and Valentine to save Sergio and Loescher. It is worth noting von Zehle served as a technical advisor, which is a major reason why the rescue sequences are so tense and realistic.

Borten’s screenplay readily admits Vieira de Mello’s decision to evict the U.S. forces guarding the UN’s headquarters in Iraq left it directly vulnerable to terrorist attack. However, for some dubious reason, it omits al-Zarqawi’s cited motivation for the bombing in his statement of responsibility: the East Timor deal that result in a net loss of territory controlled by the Islamic Caliphate—in that case the Indonesian government.

As a film, Sergio moves along at a good place and convincingly recreates the major events of his time, even though Barker and lead actor Wagner Moura are transparently mindful of protecting Vieira de Mello’s reputation throughout the film. They show some self-doubt and human weakness, but just enough to provide an opportunity for redemption. Ana de Armas is pretty credible expressing frustration with his workaholism and commitment phobia, but the character is largely defined in relationship to him. 

Up until the harrowing rescue sequences, Brian F. O’Byrne almost always hits the same gimlet note as Loescher, Vieira de Mello’s more realpolitik lieutenant. As it happens, the most charismatic performance might just come from Garret Dillahunt, who inspires confidence playing Sgt. von Zehle. Plus, fans of Southeast Asian cinema may be amused to see the great Vithaya Pansringarm pop up briefly as the president of Indonesia.

Sergio has a smoothly professional gloss, but its predictable sentimentality gives it the vibe of a well-intentioned TV movie, which it sort of is. It is not boring, but it always feels very sanitized. Still, it does better by the American military than most viewers would expect. Recommended for eventual Netflix streaming, Sergio screens again today (1/31) in Park City and tomorrow (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.