Cesar Chavez tells the story of one man’s struggle to protect field workers against the tyranny of corporate greed. It’s a biopic that I’m surprised hasn’t been made yet. I remember a time when biographic epics were a big deal. Ghandi swept the Oscars when it came out. We can’t forget Lawrence of Arabia before that. I guess you can throw the ancient history epics like Cleopatra and Sparticus in there too. I’ve never been all that enticed by the biography genre, unless you count Goodfellas and Mommy Dearest. The movies about well-known historical figures have never quite captivated me, because I assume they will fall short, and they usually do. You can only tell so much about a famous person’s life, and the stuff that isn’t a famed part of history can seem dull. I did like A Royal Affair, but that’s because it was so unfamiliar to me. The writing and acting in that were phenomenal in exactly the same way they weren’t in the movie Diana. I’m not sure what I expect from these films, but whatever it is, it generally isn’t delivered.
Such is the case for Cesar Chavez directed by Diego Luna with Michael Pena playing the lead. Coming from the South, where every city has a street named after Chavez, I feel I know something of him but not much. After watching Cesar Chavez, I still feel that way.
The film depicts Chavez’s early plights to unionize the field workers amidst their dropping wages and the farm owners’ rising profits. Furthermore, the political backdrop has pro-business politicians like Reagan and Nixon heralding in an era of tax cuts, deregulation, and white-collar prosperity forging its reign upon the broken backs and shattered dreams of the working class. It’s a lot that Chavez is up against, but his stoic resoluteness and fierce adherence to non-violent methods make him all the more heroic in his endeavors. Add to this the gulf this creates between duty and fatherhood with a scowling resentful son who ultimately runs away as he realizes he doesn’t stand a chance against his father’s vision for their culture.
Cesar Chavez takes us through the initial struggles and backlashes of fighting for workers’ rights from the evil, racist, greedy farm owners led by a wealthy businessman villain, Bogdanovitch, played by John Malkovich, who’s philosophy is that he and his peers are the adults, and the workers are children who need to be told what to do, not negotiated with. Chavez also has to contend with antagonism within his ranks from those who simply can no longer turn the other cheek under his non-violent rationalism.
When drastic measures yield no traction for his objectives, and President Nixon throws his weight behind the farm owners, Chavez goes to Europe in a last ditch effort to gain international support to boycott California fruit exports, particularly grapes. This eventually proves effective and Chavez triumphs with Bogdanovitch and the other owners at last agreeing to raise wages and improve treatment of the workers. Furthermore, Chavez’s son finally understands and forgives his father in a moment straight out of a Latter Days Saints PSA.
Cesar Chavez has its strengths, mainly in the acting. Pena brings the appropriate soft-spoken aloofness to the role. Ugly Betty herself, America Ferrera, practically steals the show as the unwavering supportive wife and mother who makes the best of things with their litter of children (I counted 6 but I could be wrong). It’s the most authentic performance I’ve seen in a long time. Malkovich, however, seems to phone this one in for the most part. There’s always a tinge of crazy in his roles, especially his villains, but I feel that lacking in Cesar Chavez. He does his usual thing of building into a rage that seems sudden, yet smooth and arcing, followed by a return to an unruffled casual reserve. I expected it, but it just feels a tad stale this time. I will always blame the script and director, however, before I blame Malkovich’s acting ability.
The screenplay, written by Kier Pearson and Timothy Sexton, obediently follows all of the dramatic plot points of a Hollywood biopic with an anticlimactic showdown between Chavez and Bodgdanovitch. It’s surprising in it’s lack of being surprising because these writers brought us Hotel Rwanda and Children of Men respectively. Both films are simply captivating, but Cesar Chavez feels run-of-the-mill.
As for the direction, the overall feeling of Cesar Chavez makes me suspect Luna watched every major biopic in the last 15 years and loved Ali the best. So much so, that he tried to remake it shot by shot with the same amber hue and general aesthetic that film had. Then, after he had this really long movie with countless long, drawn out scenes like in Only God Forgives, he discovered he could tighten up the movie by turning parts into montages. What we have left is an experience that makes me feel like I am watching a movie that is constantly interrupted by trailers of itself.