Cesar Chavez, the man who became the face of disenfranchised California farmworkers, was many things: courageous, controversial, quietly charismatic, politically astute, singular in his focus.
“Cesar Chavez” the movie, starring Michael Peña as the Mexican American activist and America Ferrera as his wife, Helen, could use more of those qualities.
Chavez was loved, hated and feared, at times by friend and foe alike, for his impassioned fight to unionize immigrant pickers and pruners beginning in the late 1960s. The laborer strike Chavez helped organize in Delano, Calif., the grape boycotts he pushed, the protest marches he led and his pacifistic approach, which included a life-threatening 25-day hunger strike to break the impasse between workers and growers, made him compelling, heroic.
The man was not, by most accounts, pedestrian. In trying to follow so closely in his footsteps, the film, however, is.
Zeroing in on the most turbulent and defining time in Chavez’s life — leaving the early and later years for others — director Diego Luna is earnest to a fault. Working with a script by Keir Pearson (“Hotel Rwanda”) and Timothy J. Sexton (“Children of Men”), the Chavez of the film is more saint than sinner, his complexities lost in sanding down the rough edges.
The conflict with the growers was his mission and becomes the organic centerpiece of the film. The friction with his oldest son, Fernando (Eli Vargas), another ongoing battle, feels more contrived, used as a stand-in for any and all flaws.
Chavez, who died in 1993, was steadfast in resisting the idea of a feature film based on his life. Those wishes, and the family’s, may have influenced Luna’s restraint and the traditional biopic that emerges as a result. The filmmaker does succeed in bringing visibility to all that Chavez accomplished, which is significant.
Ably grounded by Peña, who gained 30 pounds and dialed down a more voluble on-screen persona to play Chavez, much of the movie unfolds, as it should, in the fields. Shot on location in Hermosillo’s rich growing region in the Mexican state of Sonora, where the vineyards are more reminiscent of California of the 1970s, the rows and rows of grapes seem endless.
A typical day in the field is as unending, though far less picturesque. It is hard watching workers forced to pay for their cup of water, children working alongside parents, hands blistering, backs aching, nights spent crowded onto pallets in grower shacks. That is the milieu that Chavez drives into — wife, eight kids and unionizing ideals in tow.
Cinematographer Enrique Chediak captures the clash of harsh labor and bucolic setting beautifully. The period detail in the sets and costuming is exceptionally well done. It makes the shifts between news footage from the times, including some eerie shots of then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan opposing the boycott, and the new footage nearly seamless.
Though most of the film is pulled from the pages of history, the lead grower and chief adversary, Bogdanovich (John Malkovich), is a fictional character. He is also the most believable of the group; the others are caricatures of angry white men. A Croatian immigrant, Bogdanovich is more concerned with protecting the business he has built than the workers’ plight. In Malkovich’s hands, he is implacable and unbending, but not a monster.
The film keeps circling through the various staging grounds of the resistance. The protest and strike logistics, the political pressure from hearings led by Sen. Robert Kennedy (Jack Holmes), the public support of the boycott, ever tightening, like a noose. In the face of it, the growers dig in and Chavez becomes increasingly radicalized, starting the fast that would undo the growers. But too often, the rope goes slack, the tension too uneven.
It is a very different role for Peña, and not just because the weight of the film rests on his shoulders. It is the change in sensibility. More typical is his cop, crackling with tension in the 2012 crime thriller “End of Watch.” In contrast, Chavez is emotionally isolated in the extreme. The actor certainly captures that, but it also serves to throw up a barrier between the character and the audience.
Far more relatable are the key women in Chavez’s life. Ferrera is excellent, giving Helen an interior resilience and strategic intelligence that matches her husband. Rosario Dawson, as the movement’s energetic and outspoken Dolores Huerta, is the movie’s other anchor. She helps us navigate the changing landscape of Chavez’s resistance efforts, which began with the civil rights initiatives of the Community Service Organization and eventually coalesces in Chavez’s founding of the United Farm Workers labor union.
That this is Luna’s first time to direct an English-language film seems more a matter of the pull of a passion project than evolution. “Chavez” follows Luna’s 2010 Spanish-language drama “Abel,” “Pacifico,” one of the shorts that comprised 2010’s “Revolución"; and a documentary on Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez in 2007.
Luna is far better known in the U.S. as an actor. His breakthrough came alongside Gael García Bernal in 2001’s sexual awakening story “Y Tu Mama También.” In the years since, he has split time between Spanish-language and U.S. projects, including memorable turns in “Milk” and “Elysium,” among others.
As a filmmaker, Luna is still finding his voice. For all he effectively puts on screen in “Cesar Chavez,” Luna never gets past his respect for the accomplishments to give us a true measure of the man.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release