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‘Sergio’ makes clear how much was lost in Iraq

Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello died on Aug. 19, 2003, after a truck bomb exploded just outside his office at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, leaving him to spend his last hours buried headfirst in a pile of rubble and bitter irony. De Mello, a high-ranking U.N. diplomat and internationally known “fixer,” had not wanted to be in Baghdad. He took the job as U.N. Secretary General to Iraq at the behest of world leaders including then- President George W. Bush with an eye to overseeing a speedy end to the U.S. occupation. He did not support the war and was planning to issue a statement condemning the coalition for use of excessive force. He had already removed the tank and soldiers from the gate of the logistically vulnerable headquarters at the Canal Hotel because he felt their presence seemed to signal American control of the United Nations, something he most vociferously protested.


FOR THE RECORD:
Sergio: A review of HBO’s “Sergio” in Thursday’s Calendar said that author Samantha Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her book about the Brazilian diplomat on which the program was based. In fact, Power won the award for “A Problem From Hell.” —


Even so, he was considered by Al Qaeda to be a personal enemy. And when the man who had devoted his life to saving thousands of the world’s citizens from war and hunger, from drought and fear, needed saving himself, the only resources at hand were a medic and a soldier trying to dig him out of a three-story deep pile of concrete and debris using only their hands and a purse tied to a bit of curtain cord.

Based on Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Sergio,” which premieres Thursday night on HBO, attempts to show how the loss of one man can irrevocably affect world events and how tragic, and perhaps avoidable, that loss was.

Director-producer Greg Barker (“Ghosts of Rwanda”) uses the typical tools of the documentarian — film footage, interviews, photographs, some reenactments, expository narration — but there is so much footage of the subject himself that his natural charisma (he has been compared to a cross between Bobby Kennedy and James Bond) and his passion for the United Nations need no explanation.

Neither do we have to rely on descriptions of the bombing itself. Because a news conference was going on at the Canal Hotel, the explosion and its horrific aftermath are all caught on film. The interview subjects are likewise vivid and captivating: the words and still palpable grief of De Mello’s mother Gilda, his fiancée Carolina Larriera, and his bodyguard Gaby Pichon create a portrait of a complicated and gifted man while commentary from Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Holbrooke (former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.) and L. Paul Bremer (former U.S. administrator of Iraq) make clear the unique and lionized role De Mello held in diplomatic circles.

And then there is the story told by U.S. Army Reservist William von Zehle and Army medic Andre Valentine, who spent hours trying to free De Mello, and American professor Gil Loescher, who had been in a meeting with De Mello when the blast occurred.

Because the story of the rescue attempt — Loescher was finally freed after a double leg amputation — is so powerful, “Sergio” does, at times, feel like two films, one the biopic of a fascinating international force, the other a blow-by-blow recounting of a heroic rescue attempt. And though it was inevitable that a man’s life cannot be done justice in a 95-minute documentary, the balance often tips in favor of the rescue attempt to the detriment of the man himself.

But the prolonged narrative of the rescue is not just dramatic, it’s weighted with meaning. Had Von Zehle and Valentine been given the necessary resources, De Mello might well have been saved and, it is surmised, the course of the war in Iraq altered. Instead, De Mello became a victim of the very problem he was sent to resolve — a lack of communication, cultural understanding and resources. Though the danger to De Mello and the U.N. was clear from the get-go, there had been no preparation, and when the explosion occurred, chaos reigned for hours.

Chaos that still clearly reverberates almost seven years later.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


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