Helmer Greg Barker takes structural chances, eschewing the predictable for a more unorthodox film, and it works.

With: Samantha Power, Paul Bremer, Condoleeza Rice, Carolina Larriera, William von Zehle, Gil Loescher.

Astounding archival footage, remarkable access and solid source material can’t hurt a nonfiction filmmaker, but helmer Greg Barker is also blessed with an inspiring subject in “Sergio,” his life-and-death story about dashing, high-minded U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, whose career was about nothing if not life and death. Barker takes structural chances, eschewing the predictable for a more unorthodox film, and it works. HBO and BBC will provide widespread exposure for a film, and subject, that deserve it.

Brazilian Vieira de Mello, who had spent his career as a U.N. high commissioner virtually parachuting into global hot spots, had movie star looks and the soul of saint: He was the first U.N. envoy to negotiate with Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, served in Bosnia and Croatia during their dark days and helped East Timor establish itself as an independent democracy. It was this effort, in helping East Timor break away from the Muslim nation of Indonesia, that incurred the wrath of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden: Among Barker’s more startling interviews is with an associate of al-Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who righteously declares Vieira de Mello an enemy of Islam who deserved to die. Which he did, after terrorists bombed the Baghdad U.N. headquarters on Aug. 9, 2003.

It was not a quick death, and in relating Vieira de Mello’s achievements and the high regard in which he was held worldwide (even apparently, by the U.N.-hating Bush administration), Barker turns his biopic into a thriller. Using footage of the bomb site and even a feed from a press conference that was going on when the bomb explodes (the screen goes black), Barker creates riveting cinema. Via interviews with the two soldiers who spent the day trying to rescue Vieira de Mello from the rubble (and did save his colleague Gil Loescher), we learn how Vieira de Mello, even as he lay trapped and dying, wanted only to know how everyone else was.

Vieira de Mello hadn’t wanted to go to Baghdad. He had spent his life quelling disasters and saw the Iraq invasion as another in the making. He was an idealist, but also a realist. Asked to pray by one of his rescuers, Army medic Andre Valentine (the other soldier is William von Zehle, a great interview subject), Vieira de Mello’s answer isn’t what Valentine wants to hear. What Barker doesn’t emphasize, however, is that there were religious fanatics everywhere that day in Baghdad, and that Vieira de Mello believed in plenty.

Production values are tops, particularly the HD photography.

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Production: An HBO Documentary Films and BBC Storyville presentation, in association with Screen Pass Pictures, Impact Partners and Motto Pictures, of a Passion Pictures/Silverbridge production. Produced by John Battsek, Greg Barker, Julie Goldman. Executive producers, Samantha Power, Andrew Ruhemann, Christina Weiss Lurie, Jeffrey Lurie, Nick Fraser, Sheila Nevins. Co-executive producers, Diana Barrett, Abigail Disney, Jim Schwartz, Susan Schwartz, Geralyn Dreyfous, Kerstin Emhoff. Directed by Greg Barker. Based on the Samantha Power book, "Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World."

Crew: Camera (color, 16mm, HD), Frank-Peter Lehmann, Colin Clarke Silvestre Campe, Patrick Fraser; editor, Karen Schmeer; production designer, Mark Greville; re-recording mixer, Mark Rozett; sound designer, Steven Avila; associate producer, Diane Becker; casting, Melissa Feliciano, Lara Atalla. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2009. Running time: 94 MIN.

With: With: Samantha Power, Paul Bremer, Condoleeza Rice, Carolina Larriera, William von Zehle, Gil Loescher.

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