When we first meet UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura), he’s just been injured in a bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. How did he get there and how will he get out? The film rewinds three years or so to trace his path as a high ranking special representative of the United Nations. Previously he’d worked to make East Timor an independent state, learning valuable lessons in open and honest communications with the very people he’s trying to help. It’s also where he meets Carolina (Ana de Armis), a woman so special that she’ll follow him to him to his next posting, in Iraq.
It’s 2003 and the U.S. has just declared war on Iraq. It’s a war neither Sergio nor Carolina believe in, but Sergio believes in his work and believes he has one last contribution to make before retiring to Brazil with his new love. Setting up headquarters in the Canal Hotel, he dismisses the U.S. troops guarding the building, taking pride in the fact that Iraqis would feel welcome to approach their offices. He was adamant that the UN remain neutral, unaffiliated with the US invasion. But this decision left the building vulnerable, and Al-Qaeda seized the opportunity, using a suicide driver to detonate a bomb under his office’s window. The blast injured over 100 people and killed at least 22. Sergio and Gil Loescher (Brían F. O’Byrne), a consultant to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, are alive but trapped in the rubble. If nothing else, it gives Sergio plenty of time to reflect on his past.
Sergio de Mello is clearly important, if mostly unknown, and his peace-making ideals are admirable. It’s clear director Greg Barker wants to pay tribute to the man but in doing so, the story splinters. The love story is given equal if not more screen time than his storied political career, which inevitable gets simplified, complex situation distilled into soundbites, which actually seems to be the antithesis of what de Mello stood for.
Still, it’s an incredible performance from Moura and a competent one from de Armis. It is likely worth watching for that alone. It’s surprisingly slow at times for a movie that starts with an explosion, and I wish we knew more about the man and his motivations. But since this bombing resulted in a profound and lasting change to the way UN administers its practices globally, this event is worth commemorating.