For a biopic to be effective, it has to be more than a Wikipedia entry with some stage directions and dialogue. For a biopic to be good, it has to make a case for why the life of the person it’s about is important, and how that connects to us in the here and now. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate biopic for our current society than a film about the life of Cesar Chavez, a pioneering labor leader who went out into the farmers fields of California’s central valley and organized the workers there into the National Farm Workers Association. Issues around migrant labor still exist today, and are still deeply felt on all sides. There’s also the dwindling returns of the entirety of the labor movement as a whole, so the time seems ripe to remind people just how much blood, sweat and struggle went into worker’s rights.
Cesar Chavez meets those aforementioned goals in a perfectly satisfying way. Director Diego Luna highlights the struggles and successes of Chavez’s five year odyssey to get justice for the California farm workers in the midst of one of the most socially tumultuous times in American history. More than that though, Luna demonstrates that most parties involved in the struggle, from the poor farm hand to the rich growers, were real people with complex emotions and thoughts, not just heroes and the villains.
The film begins in 1965 as Chavez (Michael Peña) and his wife Helen (America Ferrera) pack up their eight kids into a VW bug and head off for California farm country. Chavez, tired of organizing out of a Los Angeles office, wants to get his hands dirty, and dirty he does get them. Over the years, he struggles not just with the incorrigible growers and a brutally corrupt local police force led by Sheriff Smith (Michael Cudlitz), but with his own people’s agony and outrage as their movement seems to take one step forward and three steps back. Despite personal costs to himself and his family, Chavez perseveres and in an ending spoiled by historical fact, gets the members of the NFWA the dignity they deserve.
As a screenwriting exercise, this telling of Chavez’s life is paint by numbers. The connect the dots plotting follows the character as he arrives amongst the downtrodden masses, struggles to establish legitimacy, enjoys some success before the man intervenes, and enjoys greater success in spite of that before the end of the second act when everything seems lost. The third act then becomes eking out that victory despite the odds, and although we know those odds were darn near insurmountable, juxtaposing archival footage of Richard Nixon’s presidential inauguration with scenes of police brutality against the union activists is a little on the nose.
Perhaps it’s because of Luna’s extensive acting experience, but it’s the performances that, if anything, will sell you on Chavez, particularly Peña as the title character. Peña is one of those actors who is usually content with taking on supporting roles; he was Jake Gyllenhaal’s partner in End of Watch, Nicolas Cage’s fellow fireman in World Trade Center, and Mark Wahlberg’s unwitting co-conspirator in Shooter. As Chavez though, Peña proves himself extremely comfortable with and capable of going solo into the spotlight.
It can’t be an easy thing being a Mexican-American actor playing such a towering figure of historical significance, especially to the Latino community, but Peña shows a lot of confidence as Chavez in an understated way. He lets the film frame the importance of the icon while grounding the character as a man struggling to create better circumstances so that people like him can have a better life. The movie tries to force drama by occasionally visiting the growing estrangement between Chavez and his eldest son Fernando, but it underestimates both the already existing and tremendous drama of the union struggles and Peña’s ability to portray Chavez’s self doubt and concern without needing a big scene to do it.
If there’s a main villain in the piece, it’s co-executive producer John Malkovich as Bogdanovich, one of the wealthiest growers in California and the main opposition to the workers organizing. Neither Luna nor Malkovich paint Bogdanovich as a mustache-twirling baddie in love with the idea of putting workers back in their place. Rather, we see him as an immigrant himself whose opposition comes from the American ideal that, if he can pull himself up by his bootstraps, anyone can. Thankfully, you never see Malkovich scream about teaching someone a lesson or getting hysterical about the workers coming for him like some kind of Farmer Al Capone. Instead, he calls upon the reserve of calm and chilled logic to play Bogdanovich, and it works well.
With all the actors doing their jobs, it’s easy to forgive Luna for using a style that’s hard to pin. He sometimes favors docudrama while following the workers out in the field, and a more staged and purposeful style when doing scenes at Chavez’s home. The director does do a very good job of painting the hard work in the fields using the harshest light possible and keeping the film moving briskly, rarely losing focus on the main story of the union’s struggle.
If you plan on walking into Cesar Chavez thinking that you’re going to see something that breaks the mold with its technical and structural brilliance, you’re bound to be disappointed. Frankly, it’s hard to say that Chavez aspires to anything more than Capra-esque with its intentions and, plot-wise, a true-life story of how David occasionally does beat Goliath. However, it’s hard to not be pulled in by the timeliness of the story. Many would argue that modern labor needs a towering figure like Chavez to lead them in these modern times, but in lieu of that, maybe a towering performance by Michael Peña as Cesar Chavez will do the trick.
Cesar Chavez is a typical and topical biopic, but the performances, led by a very strong Michael Peña, should leave you satisfied.