Review: ‘Cesar Chavez’ is a strangely muted biopic

Michael Pena (next to Rosario Dawson) plays the great labor organizer in "Cesar Chavez." Credit: Pantelion Films
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.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

NYPD: Suspect dead after two U.S. Marshals, cop…

A suspected sex offender died during a shootout inside a West Village smoke shop that left two U.S. Marshals and an NYPD detective wounded, officials said.

National

OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…

Local

MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.

Local

De Blasio, Bratton defend city's efforts after Eric…

Mayor Bill de Blasio justified the city's response to the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while in police custody earlier this month.

Movies

Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."

Movies

'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.

Television

'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."

Television

TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.

NFL

Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

MLB

Joe Torre: I'm in Hall of Fame because…

Joe Torre spent 18 years putting together a near Hall of Fame career as a player. But it was the 12 years he spent as…

MLB

Yankees GM Brian Cashman breaks down art of…

The action frequently accelerates as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches, as it will on Thursday.

Travel

Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.

Education

Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…

Education

NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.

Tech

The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.