There is no doubt that when Diego Luna took the stage to introduce the world premiere of his film “Cesar Chavez” at this year's SXSW, he was honestly moved by the entire experience of getting the film made, and it is obviously important to him. It was an emotional introduction to a film that took him a long time to get made, and I would never begrudge him that genuine sense of accomplishment.
Unfortunately, “Cesar Chavez” has the same problems that plague many biopics, and it is a reminder of just how problematic the genre is as a whole. Just because someone did something that was important doesn't mean their life is suitable for a motion picture. Like many biopics, “Cesar Chavez” offers up a very specific point-of-view on the labor organizer and his accomplishments, and the respect that Luna has for his subject is clear in every moment of the film. The script by Keir Pearson is admirably restrained in many ways, but it is also almost completely devoid of anything that would give the film the feel of actual life. This is a movie full of wax figures, where even their flaws are perfect. Just to show that Chavez wasn't perfect, the film repeatedly returns to his troubled relationship with one of his sons, but it is resolved in such an on-the-nose way that even his problems seem more noble and beautiful than most people's successes.
In terms of real-world impact, how you feel about Chavez no doubt hinges on how you feel about unionization and immigration. I think the work he did was important, but it's also almost defiantly anti-cinematic. When your film's big climax deals with the sale of grapes in Europe and contract negotiations, it's hard to make that dramatically gripping. The film casts John Malkovich as the face of the Horrible White Vineyard Owners, focusing on him as the main adversary to the success of Chavez and his followers, and Malkovich tries his best to turn his character into more than just a type. It's just not there on the page, though.
Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera, and Wes Bentley all play key figures in Chavez's life, and they all do everything they can to inject some sort of energy or urgency to the proceedings, but to little avail. The person who struggles the hardest in the film is Michael Pena, and I'm unabashedly in the tank for him as an actor. He's incredibly funny, and I've enjoyed seeing him work in comedies like “Observe and Report” over the last few years. He's also capable of playing heartbreak with an accessible vulnerability. I'm a firm believer that Pena is someone who we'll be watching for decades to come, and I get why he would be the choice to play someone as revered by the Hispanic community as Chavez. It's a good match. But he's stranded by the script, and he's forced to play Chavez at Full Saint the entire time, which basically turns him into a crashing bore.
Here's the worst thing I can say about this movie: it is exactly what you think you're going to see the moment you hear they made a film about Cesar Chavez, and nothing else. The film does a decent job of evoking the time and place, and tech credits are solid across the board. I'd be happy to see Luna direct something else, but next time, I'd like to see him work on something where he wasn't dramatically handcuffed from the very start. It feels like his very real and understandable reverence for Chavez both motivated him to make this movie and trapped him into making it a completely hollow salute with nothing resembling real life onscreen.
“Cesar Chavez” opens everywhere today.