Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: Cesar Chavez

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Diego Luna's "Cesar Chavez" proves that Michael Pena is ready for leading man status, but the film itself is merely a respectable, but by-the-numbers, biopic.

Chavez was a key figure for the labor movement of the 1960s, fighting for the rights of farmworkers - most notably, grape pickers in California - and butting heads with exploitative farm owners and aggressive police.

Much of Luna's film focuses on Chavez's attempt to unionize the farmworkers of Delano, Calif. and the grape strike of the mid-1960s. The film does little to portray Chavez's personal life, outside of throwing in a subplot about how his older son grows to resent him, due to the fact that he spends more time with the striking workers than he does with his family.

The inclusion of this plot device is similar to depicting Ray Charles in the 2004 film of his life as a womanizer in that it attempts to show the flaws of its central character. In the case of Chavez, this is done primarily to prevent the film from becoming a hagiography.

There's enough stirring material here - from the mistreatment of the workers by the farm owners and police - and enough to get you riled up - documentary footage of Ronald Reagan referring to workers striking for their rights as "immoral" - to nearly make the film work.

And Pena gives a strong performance as the civil and labor rights leader, proving that he is ready to break out of the supporting actor category in which he has primarily been working for more than a decade.

But "Cesar Chavez" is a bio movie that mostly plays by the rules. In other words, we see filmed depictions of all the major historic events of its character's life and career without really diving deeper into who he was as a person. This is far from a bad film - in fact, it's well-performed, frequently riveting and obviously well-intentioned. It's just that a heroic figure like Chavez probably deserved a little more than a biopic that plays too closely by the rules of the genre.

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