Coming off his documentary work, Greg Barker presents his first scripted feature in a mishmash of undercooked storylines and characters.
Lots of biopics name themselves after their subject. It’s a simple choice that’s become a cliché, but with Sergio, writer Craig Borten goes a step further. Here, Sergio isn’t just the protagonist’s name; it’s one of the biggest motifs of the entire movie. Yes, there are many points in Greg Barker’s scripted debut where people speak with the specificity to border on feeling inhuman, and yes, there’s an overabundance of characters and oversimplified ethics. But do so much as dip your tongue into a lite beer each time someone says “Sergio,” and you’ll get alcohol poisoning in no time.
And while that issue is far from the movie’s biggest, it’s also symbolic: Sergio is a movie where its loudest decisions are its most generic. The movie carries a documentary realism aesthetic that sounds fitting on paper, but Richie Moore & Adrian Teijido’s cinematography is shallow and desaturated. Borten’s script, while a bit more ambitious than his work on Dallas Buyers Club and The 33, is so cacophonously structured that it can’t help but cling to an artificial sense of negative space to move forward. Sure, there are ethics here, but just how do they play into the bigger picture?
That’s hard to say. Sergio posits itself as a standard biopic in characters, morals, and grey area (or lack thereof). What it tries to do, on the other hand, is track four points in time at once. When we begin, Sérgio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) is pinned under rubble as a result of the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing. The United Nations diplomat has worked for 34 years across the world at this point. Fiji, Kosovo, Iraq—these are but a few of the places he‘s fought for human rights before his untimely death in a Baghdad terrorist attack. Now he’s about to pass away.
So, what do we learn about him? Not much. Borten’s script tries to flesh out Vieira de Mello’s work at the turn of the millennium, but it’s much too focused on turning him into a martyr. Granted, that doesn’t mean the movie meant to do this. It’s much too focused on accessible character traits to have one iota of cynicism, as everyone is defined by a single adjective.
Sergio is righteous. His girlfriend, Carolina (Ana de Armas), is supportive—and a bland writer’s tool to excavate more from the protagonist. Others, on the other hand, alternate between stone-faced military types and the kind of people whose moral clarity would rise up if the overall film had a greater sense of time or purpose. The characters are dull, yes. But the politics are so black and white that the movie’s main trick is to hold them far enough away in hopes that the audience will project a grey area onto them.
The characters are dull, yes. But the politics are so black and white that the movie’s main trick is to hold them far enough away in hopes that the audience will project a grey area onto them.
As a result, the movie falls into a kind of negative space that, while fascinating for a story of this kind, feels entirely unintentional. Scenes only begin to flesh themselves out by the end when the script actually lets characters have entire conversations, and Barker, making his leap from documentary to scripted filmmaking, approaches each sequence with a sameness that undercuts any sense of progression.
Instead, the cast gets most of the weight to carry here, and it’s a mixed bag to say the least. Moura is uneven in mannerisms and delivery, swaying from sullen to shouty at the drop of a hat. Bradley Whitford shows up in a supporting role to spew exposition, and then spew it again. De Armas, all the while, ends up as the most grounded one in an underwritten girlfriend role, which she redeems as much as she can by wringing wide-eyed enthusiasm from writing that only presents her as naïve.
It all adds up to a movie just shy of two hours without anything to really say. It’s bizarre too; Barker directed an HBO documentary about Vieira de Mello back in 2009, but this movie doesn’t convey much knowledge of the subject. It doesn’t deduce anything about him, about his impact, about the War on Terror, about its effects. What begins as a hapless hodgepodge of tonal shifts and plot threads shapes up comparatively by the end, but by that point, its highest praise is mediocrity.
Sergio marches onto Netflix this Friday, April 17.