1 ½ out of 4 stars
Biopics seem to be a dime a dozen these days and most seem to be falling flat on their faces at an increasing rate. These failed attempts do not follow the character-based plots they so urgently demand in favor of plot-based structures with greater agendas.
Cesar Chavez, the latest of these historical-figure-based films, falls into this very pothole and never even attempts an escape. A flimsy script and average showing from the ensemble make a potentially riveting story seem merely mediocre and disturbingly biased.
The film follows the true story of the birth and progress of the United Farm Workers labor union, conceived by and led by the title character (played by Michael Peña). This organization of course came about as a result of woefully low wages and inhospitable work conditions for farm workers in California, most of whom were immigrants with no ground to stand on to fight for their rights.
Facing corrupt law enforcement and shady property owners (one of whom is played by the ever magnetic John Malkovich), the union fights to overcome seemingly impossible barriers to earn the eagerly sought-after improvements for its members. Chavez all the while struggles to balance his dedication to his work with his responsibilities to his kids and wife (America Ferrera).
The film’s greatest flaw lies in its bare bones structure. Screenwriter Keir Pearson’s (Hotel Rwanda) script relies solely on historical plot points that could have simply been read in an encyclopedia. For whatever reason, all traces of character development have disappeared and the actors are left grasping at straws for any depth whatsoever.
As a result, the protagonists are as equally infallible as they are ill-bent on accomplishing their goals on pain of death. A figure like Chavez deserves to have the shadows and tones of his story much more fleshed out so we can see the flaws and cracks that made this man do all that he did. Instead, we must simply follow the incidents of the story, point by point and sacrifice any personal connection to the characters. On the flip side, the equally determined antagonists come across as Disney villains upon entrance and set an uncomfortable tone for the remainder of the film.
Actor Diego Luna is making his directing debut here and shows raw talent behind the camera. He has cunning instincts with his usage of period footage and clearly values his actors’ deeper moments (as few and far in between as they are here). And he seems to be quite at home with a hand-held camera style, a smart choice to pair with this story, as its implementation occurs at just the right moments to place the audience right in the middle of the maddest points of the protests.
Unfortunately Luna’s pacing comes in sharp fits and starts. The more somber scenes feel eternally long in comparison to the remainder of the film. The editing in these scenes makes the film move at such a feverish pace that, compounded with such a simple script, a frenzied and slightly schizophrenic atmosphere results that pairs oddly with the subject matter. The film already starts late in the life of Chavez, right as he begins to rally workers, so Luna’s breakneck speed and Pearson’s softspoken script give the audience the impression that they walked into the movie an hour late and missed major plot developments.
Luna could also stand to work a bit more closely with his actors to show more intention and sense of relationship with the other characters, as most of our assumptions as an audience must instead come from the script alone.
Michael Peña has proven time and again to be a reliable, subtle actor and he shows much restraint here. Sometimes he holds back a bit too much, so that there is no inner life to his actions and words. John Malkovich gets the most that he can out of the anemic lines he has been given, but his talent seems a bit wasted on such an uninteresting figure. The rest of the cast does fine, particularly America Ferrera and Rosario Dawson. But again, all suffer from the unbearably thin characters they have been handed and never manage to get past the words on paper.
Cesar Chavez made himself no martyr and he never claimed to be a saint. The man spent the last years of his life working at deporting illegal immigrants (a fact interestingly left out of the film). Yet this treatment of the man’s life seems to move nonstop toward a sensationalized finish line that never really rings true. A simplified screenplay and average showing from the cast ensure this result and, for better or for worse, make the audience yearn to learn about the real Chavez, warts and all.
Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University – London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington.