When future historians write about the COVID-19 era, there won’t be many Profiles in Courage to choose from, at least when it comes to tales of American leadership. Frontline workers have risked everything for their fellow citizens while those in charge march forward in their feckless, reckless, dangerous, idiotic ways. Yes, there are some rock solid state and local officials across the country, but there isn’t a singular national take-charge figure offering measured reasonable solutions, or even the comfort and solace of a digital fireside chat. (The one notable exception is often inexplicably shunted to the sidelines.) It isn’t just the White House either, as a New York Times headline recently declared, “U.N. Security Council ‘Missing in Action’ in Coronavirus Fight.”
Mister, we could use a man like Sergio Vieira de Mello again.
Vieira de Mello is the subject of Sergio, the first narrative film from veteran documentarian Greg Barker, who directed The Final Year, The Longest War, Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden, Ghosts of Rwanda and a 2009 doc about Vierira de Mello. Sergio isn’t a household name, but he was a superstar in the world of international relations. His full biography is staggering, the definition of a god-level humanitarian, troubleshooting from volatile global environs without ever once donning a cape. In her book Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World — the primary inspiration for Sergio — journalist and former U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Samantha Power describes her friend as a “cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy.” (Coincidentally, that would have been a one-line greenlit pitch in the olden days of studio films for grown-ups.)
“I always thought Sergio’s life had the makings of a great narrative feature film,” says Barker. “Samantha Power is a friend and reading early chapters of her book, I was blown away by the epic struggles Sergio faced building his career in hot spots around the world. Two of my favorite films are The English Patient and The Year of Living Dangerously, and I saw that same eternal journey in his story.”
In 1969, following his years as a radical leftist philosophy student marching the streets of Paris, Vieira de Mello began his storied U.N. career. For the next 34 years, he oversaw the world body’s peacekeeping operations, a number of which related to the repatriation of refugee communities, such as when he helped end the exodus of the Vietnamese “boat people” from their home country. His career capper, however, came in East Timor, where he was the Administrator of the U.N. Transitional Authority. He later served as the de-facto governor of the region, newly independent after two decades of Indonesian occupation, from 1999 to 2002.
“He was seen as the go-to guy when there were difficult global problems that needed solving,” says Barker. “It’s why he was sent to Iraq; they wanted someone of his stature to try to clean up the mess.”
Following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad that April, there was a period in which the U.N.’s role in aiding the ostensible rebuild of the country was up in the air. The organization hadn’t supported the “Coalition of the Willing,” but it did offer assistance in the turmoil of the aftermath — including designating Vieira de Mello as Kofi Annan’s Special Representative in Baghdad for four months, starting in June.
But on the afternoon of August 19th, the 55-year-old Vieira de Mello was killed in a suicide truck bombing masterminded by infamous Al-Qaeda jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Vieira de Mello lived for a few hours trapped under the rubble of their makeshift Canal Hotel headquarters, and the movie is told in flashbacks as he waits, in vain, for the cavalry to come. Rescuers made it in time to save his colleague and “conscience” Gil Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne), but only after they amputated both legs below the knee. One small blessing on that fateful day is Loescher’s screams weren’t the last thing Vieira de Mello heard. His 29-year-old girlfriend, and probable second wife, Argentinian-Italian U.N. economic adviser Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas) shouted out her love to him from atop the destruction.
Vieira de Mello is played with steely reserve and a warm smile by fellow Brazilian Wagner Mouras (in a 180-degree moral turn from his performance as Pablo Escobar on Narcos). He’s smart, funny and pragmatic, but also somewhat taciturn and wholly removed from the lives of his two sons from his first marriage, to the point of serving Moqueca to his shellfish-allergic hijo. Vieira de Mello’s boys needed their dad as much as the world needed him, but duty always called.
His duty in Baghdad was allegedly his last posting (although he was also rumored to be a future candidate for Secretary-General, so grain of salt), a short-term stint stabilizing Iraq after the American invasion, which he opposed all along. Befitting a diplomatic type unafraid of negotiating with multiple war criminals, Vieira de Mello was on good terms with the Bush administration (represented on-screen with Bradley Whitford as Presidential Envoy Paul Bremer, oozing smarm and condescension), but he wasn’t going to kowtow to U.S. interests. As a means of showing U.N. independence, one of Vieira de Mello’s first moves was ridding the U.N. compound of the heavy American security measures like rooftop snipers and a tank providing a barrier to entry. His generous spirit opened the gates to the Iraqi people, which tragically led to the bloodiest attack in U.N. history, started a protracted civil war and took his life and the lives of 21 co-workers.
“In hindsight, of course it was a mistake, but nobody saw it coming. Sergio didn’t want to be perceived as part of the American occupation, so you can see it from his perspective,” says Barker. “He saw the world in complex, nuanced ways and shades of gray in people, even in his own life. Sergio’s internal struggles are the heart of the movie.”
Sergio quietly debuted on Netflix last week and taking it in when the global center isn’t holding and our personal lives are barely moving was simultaneously uplifting and demoralizing. The time is right for Vieira de Mello’s story, a selfless man who in the most literal sense of the phrase, made the world a better place. He was fearless, tireless and had an earned faith in humanity, so he could look the worst of it square in the eye and continue to believe we can do better.
However, watching a movie about his life when the deaths of four American servicemen in the still ongoing Iraq War barely makes a ripple in the all-COVID sea of news — where leaders of the world’s two largest economies are “dueling” over coronavirus origin stories, and apparently mainlining Windex is a thing — it’s hard not to feel hopeless, especially knowing that someone like Vieira de Mello isn’t out there to come to our rescue.
For his part, though, Barker continues to believe in our better selves. “I’ve seen a lot of nasty stuff, the truly dark qualities of the human condition,” he tells me. “I immersed myself in the Rwandan genocide — there is nothing more depressing that that, but it’s always worth remembering that in the midst of despair, there is a way through. Sergio was a principled man who saw the worst the world had to offer, fought his own personal struggles and still came out of it with a sense of optimism. On an emotional level, those are the kind of stories I’m certainly drawn to now.”