In his four to five decades of activism, the labor leader Cesar Chavez took on more than his fair share of worthy adversaries—the various farmers and growers he confronted in his battle for workers’ rights. Cesar Chavez, a prototypically “inspirational” biopic, condenses that opposition into a single fictional figure, a composite scoundrel played by John Malkovich. Bogdonovitch, as the character has been called, is a Croatian-born grape magnate who built his empire from the soil up, and Malkovich—seething with cool, quiet menace—plays him like the ultimate disapproving patriarch. “You don’t negotiate with children,” he insists when his peers begin buckling under the pressure of Chavez’s boycott. And he treats his actual son, heir to the business, with the disappointment ancient kings reserved for their ineffectual scion successors. Bogdonovitch is a man on the wrong side of history, a relic raging against the death of his oppressive business practices. But thanks to the actor playing him, he’s also a weirdly compelling foe—an immigrant who treats his own history of overcoming hardship as a rationale for exploiting his laborers. There’s logic, however flawed, to his villainy.
Unlikely as it may sound, Malkovich’s straw-man heavy is the most complex person on screen in Cesar Chavez, which paints its real-life cast of characters with much broader strokes. This is print-the-legend filmmaking, closer in spirit to a celebratory museum exhibit than a multifaceted depiction. The fault certainly doesn’t lie with Michael Peña, perfectly cast in the biggest part of his career. A consummate character actor, Peña has capably infused even phony material like Crash and End Of Watch with warm authenticity. The very qualities that have scored him a wealth of supporting work—his laidback charisma, his just-one-of-the-guys amiability—also make him the ideal choice to play a leader whose approachability was a key to his success. Chavez was a genuine man of the people, an ideologue who believed in marching alongside those he inspired. Peña comfortably embodies that democratic spirit; he doesn’t just nail the man’s directness and soft-spoken speaking style, but also his purportedly welcoming personality. The problem with Cesar Chavez is that it inches steadily away from a down-to-earth portrayal of its subject, eventually placing him on the very kind of pedestal he never sought to occupy.
To that end, the movie’s best scenes are its early ones, when the focus remains firmly fixed on the grunt work of grassroots activism. The screenplay, by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, wisely zeroes in on just one crucial chapter of Chavez’s life, commencing with the formation of the United Farm Workers Association in 1962. “I want to get my hands dirty,” he tells fellow activist Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), before uprooting his family to the frontlines of California, where his five-year campaign to earn fair wages for field laborers begins in earnest. There’s an excitement to this opening passage, devoted as it is to the sometimes dangerous work of picketing plantations, encouraging workers to strike, and standing up against local law enforcement. (Chavez’s first showdown with the Delano sheriff, a bully outwitted by the man he’s come to intimidate, is as stirring as intended.) Diego Luna, the Mexican actor-turned-filmmaker in the director’s chair, relies a bit too heavily on his roving handheld camera to create a sense of man-in-the-crowd urgency. But he’s good with actors, bringing out the best in his principles and bit players alike.
What Cesar Chavez critically lacks is a unique, complicated, or personal perspective on its world-famous subject. As is often the problem with portraits of influential firebrands, the film never quite sees past the movement to the man leading it. Peña, for all his affable charm, is given little to play here but heroic perseverance; his Chavez is about as multi-dimensional as the one you might find painted on the side of a building. The script’s cursory attempts to provide him with character flaws feel like an afterthought: Chavez expresses fleeting, chauvinistic jealousy when his activist wife (America Ferrera) talks about an interesting man she met behind bars, while the griping of his teenage son just scans as the usual “sterling leader, neglectful family man” criticism raised by movies of this sort. By the time Chavez has embarked on the first of many hunger strikes, the film looks more like hagiography than drama, its scenes of a quivering, wheelchair-bound Peña just the prelude to an inevitable “Yes, we can!” victory lap. Great leaders like Cesar Chavez deserve better than the Great Man biopics made about them.