The Netflix film Sergio is a draggy tonal mishmash that makes a powerful point in it’s closing minutes. It is simultaneously a geopolitical lecture, a harrowing survival drama, a romance with gorgeous landscape shots, surly militant rebels, relationship melodrama, family melodrama, explosions, flashbacks, flashforwards, grizzled combat vets, gratuitous nudity, battlefield amputations, real life footage and events, angst, crying, and a lot more. It could be titled Love in a Time of Non-Binding UN Resolutions but they went with naming the movie after the lead character to give it an important biopic feel. Sergio has few fleeting moments of greatness in a film that is a combination tragic romance drama and Iraq war historical lesson.
Sergio (Wagner Moura from Netflix’s Narcos) works as a UN Ambassador and is sent to Iraq at the outbreak of the war. The media views the UN at Iraq as an approval of US’s invasion, but Sergio insists the UN is independent, even going so far as moving US forces away from the gates. His gesture of goodwill backfires spectacularly when the building is blown up by terrorist bombers, leaving Sergio and another guy trapped under the rubble and a US soldier William (Garret Dillahunt) tries to get them free. A series of flashbacks shows Sergio’s career at the UN and falling in love with an associate, Carolina (Ana de Armas), who is now waiting desperately outside the rubble for her boyfriend to make it out.
The film has a flashback, flashforward structure that is more confusing than it intends to be. The main narrative is the bombing and then it flashes back to how they arrived, and then it flashes back further to him meeting Carolina, with a bit more flashbacks and flashforwards throughout without any consistent structure. There’s even a random flashback in the middle of a flashback of Sergio being an inattentive father to his kids which adds pretty much nothing. The movie is directed by documentarian Greg Barker who also directed a 2009 documentary also called Sergio about the same guy. The same weekend 2020’s Sergio dropped on Netflix he also had a documentary from Showtime about the Afghanistan conflict called The Longest War which is an interesting release schedule quirk in the current all-streaming era. There is a documentary feel here with loose narrative timeline hopping and the stuff with Sergio trapped under the rubble is very much you-are-there immediacy. But sometimes that realism clashes with the conventions of a fictional narrative, like Armas and Moura in a jarringly pointless love scene that tonally clashes with the later serious stuff.
This isn’t to say that Armas and Moura are bad, far from it. Although Armas’ character of Caroline is basically stuck in the girlfriend role; they meet cute while jogging outside a war zone, and they have a first kiss in a downpour like something out of a sappy romance drama. Still, Armas has a fascinating presence as even in an underwritten role she brings a unique energy. When Sergio is trapped underneath the rubble her frantic reactions are heartbreaking, and a moment they share talking to each other through the collapsed building is a dramatic highlight.
Moura as Sergio has a dramatic heft. While the UN is often dismissed as toothless talking heads, he makes it seems like what he is doing has importance. A chunk of the movie is a flashback of him negotiating a peace treaty and him getting two sides to talk is a big deal. Another very good scene has Sergio talking to a fabric factory worker that is a powerful way to show why knowing about hardships in far flung countries is important. The ticking clock drama comes from Sergio being trapped in the aftermath of the bombing, which features the guy beside him having to endure a on-site amputation which is shocking but clashes harshly with the sappy romance melodrama vibe.
Dillahunt’s solider puts a frustrated face on the ineptness of the US’s war effort in Iraq, admitting that anywhere else they could get the equipment to free Sergio easily but Iraq is a mess. He even says that the terrorist bombed the embassy of the UN simply because it was an easy “soft target” which breaks Sergio’s heart. As the representative of the US military’s ineptness, Bradley Whitford plays the US diplomat Paul Brenner who simply wants Sergio to rubber stamp the UN’s approval of America’s invasion of Iraq but Sergio refuses to play ball, calling for a full report of the invasion. Eventually when the US Embassy is bombed, Brenner trots out some limp platitudes about resolving to fight the war on terror and the look of disgust on Caroline’s face when he says that speaks volumes.
Sergio is a bit of an oddity as it tries to be both a sweeping romantic drama, a harrowing story about the horrors of war, the perseverance of the human spirit, and a need to understand each other. It does all this simultaneously in controlled small chunks but the result of mushing it together feels haphazard. Still, it is watchable and an important story about trying to stand up for what is right and how a cruel world can unexpectedly tear it down in an instant.
Directed by: Greg Barker
Starring: Wagner Moura, Ana de Armas, Brían F. O'Byrne