Michael Pena (next to Rosario Dawson) plays the great labor organizer in "Cesar Chavez." Credit: Pantelion Films
'Cesar Chavez' Director: Diego Luna Stars: Michael Pena, America Ferrara Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
One longs for “Cesar Chavez” to succeed. It’s a Great Man biopic about the labor organizer, released in an industry that prefers to ignore Latino heroes (and Latinos). It doesn’t actually do the Great Man biopic thing, instead showing Chavez (played by a winningly low-key Michael Pena) as a flawed human struggling to balance work with home life. And it mimics the likes of “Topsy-Turvy,” Mike Leigh’s peerless film about Gilbert and Sullivan, by focusing on a small section of his life, not getting bogged down in plodding exposition. You want a summation of Chavez’s entire CV? Go to Wikipedia.
And yet why isn’t “Cesar Chavez” better? If it sounds like it’s doing everything right, then it plays as curiously remote, lacking in passion and plodding in an entirely different way than more traditional biopics. Lives, even those lived by people who achieved greatness like Chavez, aren’t often easily susceptible to dramatic shape. Chavez is one that resists it. He lived a long life, filled with small victories that added up to a career of mighty accomplishments. The best way to approach him would be as a portrait of the gruntwork of organization, not far from what Steven Soderbergh did for revolutions in “Che.” Failing that, one would be stuck with a Great Man biopic, old man makeup and all.
Instead, “Cesar Chavez” aims for a middle ground, and fails. The script, by “Hotel Rwanda” scribe, Keir Pearson, tries to find a section of Chavez’s life that could make for easy digestion. He settles on three campaigns, starting with Chavez and the United Farm Workers trying to represent 50,000 temporary Mexican workers in California grape fields. Chavez used nonviolent means, but he didn’t settle for not hitting back: He went directly to the consumer.
At its best, “Cesar Chavez” delves into the frustration and busy-ness of union organizing. This isn’t pretty or sexy work, and success comes after what feels like endless failures. But once the campaign is successful, it’s just on to a few more, then roll credits. It lacks a shape. It tries to fill its gaping holes up by looking at Chavez’s family, including his increasingly distant wife (America Ferrara) and son. But it feels like it’s just filling screentime. Director Diego Luna — who doesn’t act — wants to avoid biopic cliches, but his filmmaking seems overly plain and subdued. The poster is more stirring. Luna and Pearson never find a way in, meaning you’ll have to support the film because it's the right thing to do, not because it’s an emboldening work.