A sweeping drama set in the chaotic aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, where the life of top UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello hangs in the balance during the most treacherous mission of his career.
Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) is the United Nations high commissioner. The film tells the story of his life out of order. First, he is able to broker an incredibly difficult peace between Indonesia and East Timor, and during that time meets Carolina (Ana de Armas). He is in a loveless marriage and commits to being with Carolina.
Later, after the United States invades Iraq, Sergio is asked to go to facilitate. Carolina urges him not to go, but he feels it is his job. Once there, he pushes back against US representative Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) despite the pressure from the Untied States, and fights against US occupation of Iraq. He even insists on not having US guard at the UN’s base camp in order to separate themselves from the occupiers.
A terrorist attack takes place on the UN base camp that kills Sergio. Afterward, the US pulled out of Iraq leading to a long Civil War, but Sergio’s gravely injured colleague Gil (Brian F. O’Byrne) survives despite having both legs amputated, and Carolina returns to her justice work.
In 2003, United Nations’ Special Representative in Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, is a victim of a bombing and becomes trapped in the basement of the hotel where he was working in Baghdad.
Three months earlier, Sergio is married but there is no feeling of love in the marriage. And so, he commits to being with Carolina. Against the advice of his girlfriend and co-worker Carolina (Ana de Armas), Sergio decides to go to Baghdad after the 2003 invasion of Iraq in order to help Iraqis achieve independence and negotiate the withdrawal of American troops. He comes to a disagreement with American diplomat Paul Bremer who opposes his methods despite the pressure from the United States, and fights against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He even insists on not having U.S. guards at the UN’s base camp in order to separate themselves from the U.S. occupiers.
Sergio is killed by a terrorist attack that takes place on the UN base camp. Later, the U.S. pulls out of Iraq leading to a long Civil War, but Sergio’s gravely injured colleague Gil (Brian F. O’Byrne) survives despite having both legs amputated, and Carolina returns to her justice work in Rio.
Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura), the Brazilian United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, is being interviewed about his job and career for an educational video. In August 2003, the UN Headquarters in Baghdad is bombed. Carolina (Ana de Armas) frantically searches for Sergio, who is trapped in the rubble.
In flashback, three months earlier, despite Carolina urging him over dinner at a fancy restaurant to say no, he accepts President Bush’s request to go to Iraq given the ongoing conflict and unrest in the wake of Bush’s attempt to create a free Iraq. Sergio and his team, including his Carolina, Gil (Brian F. O’Byrne), and Gaby (Clemens Schick) head to the Middle East, for what Sergio assures Carolina will only be a few months. After seeing an officer abusing a local, he tells his team that must end.
American envoy Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) arrives, shocked that Sergio is making such headway so fast, getting a meeting with the Ayotollah. Sergio confronts Bremer about the United States reopening Abu Ghraib, telling him it doesn’t send a good message to recreate Hussein’s horrors. Bremer tells him it’s necessary, and that he is concerned about Sergio meeting with the Ayotollah. Sergio tells him they need to get out of there soon, but Bremer pushes back. The media asks Sergio if the UN is just cover for US occupation, but Sergio urges them that the UN is independent from the United States. He tells Gil to prepare a dossier on occupation.
Brener confronts Sergio about his statements, but Sergio tells him that this is essential for making sure the elections are legitimate. When Bremer tells him he doesn’t plan on having elections any time soon, Sergio tells him he will be sending him a full dossier on the human rights violations associated with occupation. Bremer tells him he can’t do that, and if he attacks the US he could lose his potential UN Secretary-General position. Sergio refuses to back down and tells Gil to call a press conference… just as an explosion rocks the building.
Back in the rubble, Master Sergeant Bill Von Zehle (Garret Dillahunt), finds Sergio and begins trying to rescue him. Sergio is in extreme pain, but sees Gil, unresponsive but breathing, nearby. Sergio flashes back to three years earlier in East Timor, when out for a jog he runs by Carolina, who he stops to introduce himself to. He’s very charmed by her, and she knows who he is but doesn’t give him her name. Later, at a diplomatic meeting, he discovers Carolina is one of the people he is meeting with, and they flirt. Sergio meets with the Argentinian General Gusmao, who is very hostile and untrusting towards Sergio, and leaves without resolution. Carolina consoles him, but when he flirts again, she tells him she is wary of a wandering married man.
Sergio and Gil strategize on how to negotiate with the Argentinian general. Gil tells him the general is wary after Cambodia, but Sergio says he did get his way with Ieng and the refugees. Flashback to Cambodia, where Sergio and Gil are held at gunpoint by the forces of Ieng Sary, rogue leader, and Sergio’s old classmate at the Sorbonne. Sergio negotiates with Ieng to get the refugees freed. Back in East Timor, while waiting to meet Gusmao again, Sergio wanders the markets where he runs into Carolina. Carolina shows him her project, giving local women startup loans through micro-financing. She introduces him to a local woman, who shares her story with him and touches Sergio.
Sergio hears back from General Gusmao that he wants a full apology from Indonesia, and Sergio is frustrated, feeling that there’s no way to broker peace there, and that the request is impossible. Carolina and Sergio kiss in the rain. Back at the bombing, another first responder, Andre (Will Dalton), finds Bill, whose comms are down and can’t call for help. He begins helping Bill to rescue Sergio and Gil. Meanwhile, Carolina helps the survivors of the bombing get aid while worrying where Sergio is. Gaby, desperately looking for Sergio, sees Sergio through a crack in the building and heads to get help.
Back in Timor, Sergio goes back to attempt to negotiate with Gusmao. Meanwhile, Sergio tells, and Carolina about his two sons, who he flashes back to bringing to see their grandmother. His younger son gets hurt when Sergio doesn’t remember that he’s allergic to shrimp, and Sergio feels guilty for not being around for them more. He tells Carolina that he and his wife married young and decided to give the boys a stable life just staying with their mother, but his work in the field.
Sergio goes to Indonesia to work on negotiating between Timor and them. He meets with President Gus Dur, who refuses to apologize to East Timor. Sergio tells Dur that this decision will determine the way the entire world looks at them, and he agrees, freeing Timor. Realizing their work is almost done together, Sergio and Carolina sleep together. Afterwards, he tells her to stay, but realizing since he’s married it could never last, she leaves.
Back at the bombing, Bill and Andre don’t understand why no assistance has arrived. Bill explains it appears to have been a truck bomb. Gil is angry because when they arrived in Baghdad, Sergio asks for the US tanks and guard to not be protecting the building, because he doesn’t want the UN to look like a US military force. Though initially, they snipe at each other, Sergio apologizes, and reaches out to grab Gil’s hand. Bremer arrives to the scene and orders the forces to get Sergio out. Andre tells Gil in order to get him out, they need to amputate his legs. They saw his legs off while Sergio apologizes to him. The men carry Gil out and Bill promises to return for Sergio.
Back in Timor, Sergio asks Carolina to come see him to do some paperwork, but surprises her by having decorated his entire place with hearts with messages written on them. She pushes him on figuring out what he really wants, and he tells her he wants to go home to Rio, he wants to broker the independence, and he tells her he wants her. She tells him he’d better be sure and they kiss and dance. Back at the bombing, Carolina finds Gaby and Sergio. She makes it to the crack in the building, and begins speaking to Sergio. They tell each other that they love each other, and he asks her if she remembers the night of independence in East Timor. We see on that night how instead of going to the official parties, they went to be with the locals at their celebration, going for a run.
In a flashback to New York City, Sergio and Carolina have the dinner we saw at the beginning where she urged him not to go. Despite her protests, he tells her it will only be a few months and then they will go to Rio like he wanted, and he’ll go into academia. Back at the bombing, Bill concludes Sergio is bleeding internally. Bill goes to Carolina, giving her a ring from Sergio, and without words, she knows Sergio has died. We see news reports, including Kofi Anon eulogizing the deaths of all those killed in the UN bombing, particularly Sergio. Carolina goes swimming with Sergio’s ring around her neck at the spot Sergio wanted to take her to, and Sergio’s instructional video from the beginning switches to footage of the real Sergio recording it.
Post-script explains after Sergio died, the US pulled out of Iraq leading to a long civil war. The attack was ordered by an Al Qaeda leader, the group which has now become ISIS. Gil survived and was able to return to his family, and Carolina was declared Sergio’s civil spouse and continues her work towards justice in Rio.