This heart-rending documentary by director Greg Barker is the tale of Sergio Vieira de Mellow, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, who was killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq on Aug. 19, 2003. It was a major turning point in the conflict, with the U.N. pulling out its mission shortly thereafter, and the escalation of insurgent violence leading to the destabilization of that country, which the U.S.-led coalition invaded in March of that year.
The movie is based on the book "Chasing the Flame" by Samantha Power, which explores the life of the charismatic international trouble-shooter known simply as Sergio in the corridors of power all over the world. He was a man of peace, who sacrificed much of his personal life for his career ambitions, whose achivements live in places like Bangladesh and East Timor, where he helped spread peace and democracy.
Barker interweaves the story of Sergio's death with that of his life, cutting back and forth between the day of the attack and the heroic efforts to rescue him, and his rise from the streets of Rio de Jinero to the highest ranks of the U.N.
The rescue story is absolutely crushing in its emotional impact, and the authenticity of its human power. Barker reveals all the aspects of that day, including the work by U.S. military rescue workers Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine to save Sergio's life.
Crawling down a tiny shaft in the rubble of the U.N. headquarters, which had been demolished by a truck bomb, the two men consoled and comforted Sergio as well as Gil Loescher, who was trapped next to him. Von Zehle's tale of having to hack through dead bodies with an Army knife in order to make enough space to get the trapped men out is likely to haunt him, and those who hear it, the rest of their days.
Barker does not attempt to sugarcoat Sergio's life or his death. Trapped in the shaft, Sergio angrily rejected Valentine's invitation to pray with him, cursing God and hurling expletives at the rescuer who was trying to help him.
The director also does not back away from showing the unseemly parts of Sergio's life, like the fact that he was a virtual stranger to his sons, and repeatedly cheated on his wife. It's telling that his mistress, Carolina Larriera, has a prominent role in telling his tale, but neither his wife or children appear.
Von Zehle even reveals that a U.S. military vehicle and crew that had been guarding the entrance to the U.N. compound was ordered away by Sergio himself, concerned that it would make his organization appear to be a pawn of the U.S. occupation -- which he himself virulently opposed.
In balancing the details of his final hours with the warts-and-all depiction of his career and personal life, Barker succeeds in presenting as fully-fleshed a portrait of Sergio as is possible for a man only glimpsed in photographs and a few newsreel clips. He was a flawed man, but a great man, whose life was cut short in the inflagging pursuit of his life's work: Peace.