Because so many biopics are formulaic—reducing a great person’s life to a familiar rise-then-fall-then-rise-again narrative—it can be tempting to overrate those that stand in opposition to the conventions. But then we have a case like Cesar Chavez, which has been made with care and an eye toward preserving the essence of the man it’s depicting. Unfortunately, director Diego Luna’s muted drama so consciously avoids theatrics that it never really comes to life. Oddly enough, a little conventionality might have helped.
Cesar Chavez avoids the temptation to offer a birth-to-death look back at the Mexican-American labor leader, instead focusing on a crucial period during the 1960s when he led a boycott of grape growers in Delano, Calif., to protest the paltry salaries for immigrant workers. Chavez is played by Michael Peña, who put on weight for the role but steers clear of the sort of ostentatious performance we’re used to seeing in a biopic. To the contrary, Peña’s Chavez is a likable but mild-mannered man—a nuts-and-bolts community organizer without the oratorical flair of a Barack Obama. As depicted in Cesar Chavez, Chavez wasn’t an inspirational leader who rallied crowds with his rousing speeches. He was just the guy who got stuff done—with persistence, with sweat, with whatever means that he had.
That’s inspirational in its own way, a reminder that real social change often occurs thanks to a thousand diligent small actions rather than one extravagant flourish. But Cesar Chavez, which was written by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, bypasses artificial flash for an overly drab procedural-style drama that chronicles how Chavez and his organization, the United Farm Workers, were able to outmaneuver the grape growers (primarily personified by John Malkovich as a fictionalized character named Bogdonovitch) and secure higher worker wages. There’s no reason that such a story can’t be riveting: Lincoln similarly zeroed in on a specific period in its subject’s life and investigated the minutiae of precise political machinations, to great effect. But Cesar Chavez too often fails to draw out the potentially compelling elements within the material.
Luna’s decision to cast Peña is a smart one: A versatile character actor who can bring a grounded realism to films as different as Observe and Report and End of Watch, he’s been able to exude a warmth and quiet loopiness that give even his most sober portrayals the unpredictable kick of real life. But Chavez hasn’t been conceived by the filmmakers to be a truly dimensional character: Peña captures his stoic, modest determination without suggesting an inner world. (Cesar Chavez does try to create some tension by showing Chavez failing to connect with his distant son—the film’s hint that his work with the UFW took a toll on his home life—but it’s rendered so perfunctorily that it comes across as an afterthought.)
Cesar Chavez’s dramatic paucity is leavened some by a good cast that invests in the story’s stripped-down authenticity. America Ferrera projects plenty of warmth as Chavez’s wife, Helen, and Rosario Dawson is memorable as fellow activist Dolores Huerta, who displays some of the charisma that Chavez himself lacked. And Malkovich plays Bogdonovitch not as a cardboard villain but as a thoughtful businessman who’s more mindful of his bottom line than of his workers—an indication that it’s often greed, not evil, that spurs corporations’ callousness.
But whether it’s Chavez’s eventual hunger strike or his attempts to rally his occasionally fractious team of supporters, Cesar Chavez plays potentially intriguing scenes with a dryness that flattens them out. Especially considering that America is currently very much engaged in a debate about economic inequality and immigration, the story Luna is telling shouldn’t be a colorless history lesson but one that ripples with contemporary undercurrents. The film educates without stirring the soul: No doubt Chavez’s activist zeal brought with it plenty of hard work, but one wishes that it wasn’t such a labor to watch those events unfold onscreen.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Diego Luna
Writers: Keir Pearson, Timothy J. Sexton (screenplay); Keir Pearson (story)
Starring: Michael Peña, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Jacob Vargas, Yancey Arias, Wes Bentley, John Ortiz, John Malkovich
Release Date: Mar. 28, 2014