You don’t get to be the namesake of countless roads, schools, buildings and even a state holiday unless you’ve led a pretty exceptional life. So why does the biopic “Cesar Chavez” make the folk hero seem like such a dull guy? That misfortune may not rank with the injustices Chavez spent his life fighting, but the movie does little to enhance the man’s legacy.
Diego Luna usually spends his time in front of the camera — including a role in the much more successful biopic “Milk” — but he felt strongly enough about Chavez’s story to direct it. He isn’t wholly to blame for this flat outing. The script by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton is a disjointed, sometimes inscrutable historical retelling of Chavez’s earliest accomplishments.
This should have been a plum role for the talented Michael Peña, who portrays Chavez, but he doesn’t have the opportunity to do much more than recite trite adages.
The movie begins in the early 1960s as Chavez decides that his work for the civil rights group Community Service Organization isn’t having a big enough impact. He decides to uproot his family and move to Delano, Calif., to help low-paid grape-pickers organize unions. At the time, they were making $2 a day without even the benefit of free water.
Chavez founds the National Farm Workers Association with the help of Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson, also painfully underused) and immediately ends up on the wrong side of the law, given that the sheriff (Michael Cudlitz) is in cahoots with the vineyard owners, including the sinister Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich). But the activist manages to overcome the opposition with unorthodox means, from a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to a grocery store parking-lot blitz, which he uses to persuade housewives to stop buying grapes and certain brands of wine. He also meets with Robert F. Kennedy, fasts for 25 days to promote nonviolence and travels to Europe to tell consumers across the pond why they should stop buying certain American produce.
Pretty exciting stuff — or it should have been. But we get little insight into Chavez’s character. We see what he does, but not who he is. Even the story lines designed to pull at our heartstrings fall flat, especially the predictable subplot about Chavez’s increasingly strained relationships with his wife, Helen (America Ferrera), and eight children.
The listless portrayal of the protagonists is at least slightly better than the over-the-top caricatures of Chavez’s opposition, who are better suited for a cartoon than anything based on history.
It seems like a waste of talent, but worse still, “Cesar Chavez” squanders an opportunity to revisit a story worth retelling.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violence and strong language. 101 minutes.