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Review: The burning chemistry of Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas lights up Netflix biopic ‘Sergio’

Wagner Moura, center, and Ana de Armas, right, in the movie "Sérgio."
Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas, right, in the movie “Sérgio.”
(Netflix)

Emmy-winning director Greg Barker, known for documentaries set in global hot spots, has not one but two films debuting this weekend. “Sérgio,” Barker’s dramatic reinterpretation of his 2009 nonfiction profile of the late United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello, launches Friday on Netflix, and “The Longest War,” a documentary chronicling U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, premieres Sunday on Showtime.

It’s no wonder that Barker was so intrigued by Vieira de Mello that he returned a decade later for a deeper dive into the life of the charismatic Brazilian. The documentary, also titled “Sérgio,” illustrated Vieira de Mello’s distinguished career carrying out the United Nations’ mission in Bangladesh, Sudan, Mozambique, Cambodia, Kosovo, East Timor and Iraq, expertly framed by a fraught rescue attempt following the 2003 bombing of the U.N.’s offices in Baghdad. It originally aired on HBO and is also available on Netflix.

Though extremely involving, the documentary left the impression that there was more to the dashing figure, who, like so many other powerful people, pursued his calling to the detriment of his family. It is that man whom Barker, in his narrative debut, and screenwriter Craig Borten, an Oscar nominee for “Dallas Buyers’ Club,” seek to reveal in the dramatized version of “Sérgio,” meeting with mixed results.

Cast as the titular diplomat, Wagner Moura, the Brazilian actor who starred as Pablo Escobar in the crime series “Narcos,” shares Vieira de Mello’s good looks and embodies the intelligence and empathy that made the man so good at his job. But the real casting coup is “Knives Out” breakout Ana de Armas as Carolina Larriera, the younger U.N. economist with whom Vieira de Mello found love after marrying young and raising two sons in absentia. Fidelity was never his strong suit, and as he tells Carolina early in their relationship, “I’m not too good with indefinite assignments.”

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His conflict over his desire to be with Carolina and his commitment to bring peace to places such as East Timor and Iraq is the center of what is, finally, a love story. Together, Moura and De Armas create the kind of chemistry that filmmakers and audiences dream about. There are enough sparks between the two that a later sex scene seems superfluous.

Unfortunately, rather than fully embracing this conflicted interior view of Vieira de Mello, Barker and Borten have chosen to retain the documentary’s framing device of the rescue attempt. In the nonfiction film, it served as a propulsive engine, carefully balanced against the interviews that told Vieira de Mello’s story and its tragic conclusion. Here, it feels abstract, disjointed from the scenes with him and Carolina, thus weakening and muddying the story.

It also necessitated the narrative choice to make Gil Loescher, the man trapped with the diplomat in the Baghdad rubble, into a composite character who serves as Vieira de Mello’s chief aide. Irish actor Brían F. O’Byrne has a nice, understated tension opposite Moura in the role, but the characterization is disorienting to anyone who has seen the documentary.

In “The Longest War,” Barker unpacks decades of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, predating the 2001 invasion to the present. The region’s complicated history of strife, the Taliban’s oppression and human rights abuses of Afghan citizens (especially women), the CIA’s pursuit of terrorist targets, and disastrous foreign policy are cataloged in dizzying detail.

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Barker utilizes a telescoping timeline to deftly lay out interviews with journalists, Afghan officials and students, U.S. intelligence officials, military personnel, NGO workers and others. Executive produced by “Homeland” creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, the film airs as a companion piece to that long-running series’ penultimate episode.

“The Longest War’s” stark, clear-eyed accounting of folly and chaos is disheartening. If there’s a flaw, it’s that the documentary covers so much information in its 81 minutes that it’s exhausting. The richness of these stories could easily have fed a docuseries. But given the frustration and anger they engender, and the current state of events, that just may have been too much.

‘Sergio’

Rated: R, for language, some bloody images and a scene of sexuality

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: Available April 17 on Netflix

‘The Longest War’

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes

Playing: Premieres 9:55 p.m. April 19 on Showtime

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