LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Sergio Vieira de Mello served more than 30 years as a diplomat for the United Nations, an idealist who was also a problem solver. He worked in some of the most divided regions in the world in charge of clearing landmines and resettling refugees fleeing war. The last post he reluctantly took was as U.N. special representative in Iraq. On August 19, 2003, a truck bomb exploded outside the U.N. headquarters. At least 22 people were killed, including de Mello. His storied career and his final moments are chronicled in the new biographical movie on Netflix called, simply, "Sergio." It's directed by Greg Barker, who joins me now from Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.
GREG BARKER: Thank you, Lulu. Glad to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's start with what kind of man de Mello was. Describe him for us.
BARKER: Sure. Yeah, I think he probably saw more war and human suffering than any one of his generation as a field operative and diplomat. What was striking about him was his ability to connect with people at all levels - from refugees in the most destitute camps to presidents and prime ministers. And a lot of people who have had those experiences can end up becoming jaded and cynical. Sergio remained optimistic, an idealist who was also grounded in a pragmatic approach to complex global problems.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And he was also, we must say, dapper, handsome, charming. I think at one point, he was described as a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy. And in the film, he's played by Wagner Moura.
BARKER: That's right.
BARKER: Wagner Moura, who is Brazilian like Sergio, probably known to a lot of your listeners as Pablo Escobar in the series "Narcos." He was very different.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But looking very different in this film, yes.
BARKER: It's very different. Yeah. I always wanted to have a Brazilian play Sergio. And Wagner finished up "Narcos" and was looking for a role that did not reinforce stereotypes of Latin males. And then we sort of found each other and realized that we saw the story, saw the world in the same way and wanted to make the same movie, which, as a part, is about Sergio's internal struggle and, more broadly, a film about empathy and how we see each other and see the world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. When de Mello arrives in Iraq, he's sort of on a political high, right? He just had a huge win in East Timor. He has this big U.N. job in New York, and he's only supposed to be there for four months. And he's very aware of the politics and the controversy that comes with his mission in Iraq. Why do you think he accepted the assignment?
BARKER: That's a very good question. You know, he was opposed to the Iraq War. He did turn the job down several times and was persuaded by Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, George Bush, Kofi Annan that he was the only person who could do this job. I also think he did feel that the invasion had happened. The occupation was a reality. So maybe there was a chance to start a new beginning for the Iraqi people and construct a post-Saddam Iraq that would be grounded in human dignity and, you know, just a more normal life. But he was kind of pushed aside and not listened to. And he grew very frustrated and could see that the occupation was in danger of going off the rails.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I should also say that I was there when Sergio died. I was covering Iraq for the AP and arrived very quickly at the scene of the U.N. compound bombing. The film takes his death and those final hours when he was trapped under the rubble and interweaves them in the movie. It's sort of a flashback. Why did you choose to do that? Why make that the sort of centerpiece of the film?
BARKER: I think it was a narrative storytelling choice that really was in my head from the very first time I encountered this story. I was friends with Samantha Power while she was writing the book about Sergio...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Samantha Power, who was the ambassador to the United Nations for Barack Obama.
BARKER: Yes. And I remember sitting down with her. And I was looking at some of the early chapters. This was, I think, 2005. And I read the chapters about what happened on the day of the attack and what would go through your head, you know, as you laid there with your life in the balance. And I just felt like one would think about everything.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what you were showing that he was really remembering was a lot about the person that he fell in love with because this film is also a pretty steamy love story. It he focuses on his relationship with Carolina Larriera, played by Ana de Armas, who worked for the U.N. at the time. And de Mello was married when he began that relationship and then ended up leaving his wife and becoming a partner of hers. And it was sort of this epic tale of two people coming together in the midst of conflict.
BARKER: Yes. His story wasn't just a political story. It wasn't just a political thriller. By the end, it becomes this love story. And Carolina, who was with him in Iraq, was down the hall when the bomb went out. And she's then outside looking for him and trying to get up to the space in the rubble where, she could then sort of get as close as she can to him and speak to him through the rubble, which so - I mean, dramatically, it's just incredibly potent and full of these deep, revelatory human emotions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, it struck me watching this how much the United Nations itself has changed since that bombing. You know, it became much more risk-averse, of course. But now we've seen a backlash from certain leaders, like President Trump, against what institutions like the U.N. represent. I mean, Trump has just threatened to defund the WHO, which is a part of the United Nations, in the midst of this pandemic. Does the U.N. still matter in the same way today? Could there be a Sergio today?
BARKER: That's a great question. I mean, I often - I've been thinking a lot these past weeks about what this story means in the midst of the pandemic or current global crisis, what Sergio would be doing if he were alive today and still with the U.N. He wasn't a scientist. He was not a doctor. But he knew how to get stuff done. And he would be trying to marshal an effective global response to this. So, you know, I think we're in this era of, like, retrenchment and looking inward. But when we're in a truly global world, you know, we need these kinds of people, these kinds of institutions that look at dire situations and find a way through it. I think of it as a story of love and hope amidst the darkness.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg Barker is the director of the film "Sergio," playing on Netflix. Thank you so much.
BARKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.