Directed by Diego Luna
Starring Michael Pena, Rosario Dawson, John Malkovich, America Herrera, Kevin Dunn, Mark Moses, Michael Cudlitz
For a biopic about a man with steely resolve and an unflinching soul, Cesar Chavez lacks the laser focus and steadfast heartbeat of an exemplar, or even a worthy apprentice. It’s a soft-skinned take on a boulder of a man, a notebook sketch of a behemoth. Not fearless enough to nose the camera in the dramatic mire, like a soldier to the cause in a personal guerrilla war, Diego Luna‘s film beckons a paint-by-numbers summary of the man’s greatest achievements, the spark notes of a six-plus year period that glosses all with thin coats, rarely taking the opportunity to remain in the moment and settle in with the hard-won emotional beats of the characters.
Chavez himself earned popularity and legitimacy in the thick of the issues, making those things he stood for inseparable from his own problems. The issues of his brothers were not theoretical troubles but matters to immerse himself in. Rather than stand idle in the soft florescence of an office, Chavez took to backbreaking labor working the fields in the blinding California sun. But instead of going out to the battlefield and working shoulder-to-shoulder like the eponymous character, Luna’s film takes the straight and narrow, delivering a softball pitch right over the plate. Like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom before it, Cesar Chavez tries to take on too much without ever going deep enough in any particular plot of emotional soil. Trying to sow too many acres with too small a hoe, Luna’s spreads his seed thin. Accordingly, his efforts rarely solidify into the powerhouse moments they ought.
Playing it close to his chest and obviously passionate about the subject, Luna’s intentions are in the right place, he just so happens to make a dire mistake. He memorializes rather than understands. Chavez is a gentle obituary, not the scathing meditation that makes for good film. As this fact solidifies, Luna’s attempts to piece everything together feels like the King’s Men playing at Dumpty Humpty. Chavez, in truth, is a series of vignettes, cut with the themes of self-sacrifice and family but these elements are left dealt with in afterthought, never something tight and essential to the piece.
When I heard that Michael Pena – a massively talented and massively underrated actor – would finally get a certifiable leading role, I was frankly delighted and my interest in this project spiked. But taking up the mantle of Chavez, it feels that Pena got too wrapped up in mimicry. Luna’s camera doesn’t help though, it’s too flighty for any of Pena’s dramatic gravitas to settle in. Bogged down in photocopying, impersonating Chavez’s choppy cadence, his signature blend of TexMex intonation and penguin-like gait, there isn’t room for honest emotional reflection. Even a dressed down Rosario Dawson, playing up the chameleonesque nature of her illusive roots, is robbed of a single moment worth remembering. Such is the nature of the performances here; they’re squashed, condensed and never given room to breathe. For all the opportunity Chavez ought to afford Pena to stand out in a harrowing and brilliant performance, he never really has much of a chance to shine. He’s a flashlight in midday, washed out by everything else, unnoticeable from twenty feet away. But Pena can’t truly be blamed for the pockets of problems Chavez runs into. The issues are inherent in a script this deferential.
Too often are biopics achieved as glossaries, skimping over events like a sleep-deprived college student licking their thumbs and skimming as hard as they can. The best film biographies though don’t worry about the events so much as the emotions behind them. They need characters, and if sometimes that means bending the rules, so be it. The reason The Social Network was so compelling was not because Jesse Eisenberg was a pitch perfect Xerox of Mark Zuckerberg but because we had a crystal clear notion of who he was, whether that was necessarily Zuckerberg or not. Watching Idris Elba do Mandela or Pena do Chavez means nothing if we never reach a greater sense of what makes these men tick. We know the history, now deliver the feelings.