Movies about famous figures can get pretty dicey when it comes to balancing historical accuracy with doing justice to their subjects. But even if the film "Cesar Chavez," opening Friday, seems to sugarcoat its subject, it holds real value in depicting a chapter of America's past with which many people are unfamiliar.
In other words, it's like a pretty entertaining history class, if you don't mind that it's not exactly objective.
But to his credit, director Diego Luna keeps things pretty restrained. He may well have been tempted to portray the farmworkers' civil rights struggles of the 1960s with more passion, grandiose music and false drama. Instead, "Cesar Chavez" feels more like a simple, gritty and realistic glimpse of the United Farm Workers union and their efforts toward gaining members a better life in Central California. What's missing (not surprisingly) is a more balanced look at those who opposed them.
Michael Peña is understated, yet appropriately steel-jawed, in the title role of Chavez, the union organizer doggedly pursuing a better life for his people while trying to meet the needs of his own household, which includes his pessimistic son Fernando (Eli Vargas), who doesn't understand the motives of a father whose first priority seems to be his cause.
As a child, Arizona-born Mexican-American Chavez saw his family lose their ranch during the Great Depression. Fast forwarding to the late 1950s, the film finds Chavez as an office-bound union/civil rights organizer who decides to squeeze eight kids and his wife Helen (a scene-swiping America Ferrera) into the family car and leave L.A. to "get my hands dirty" in the fields of Delano.
The film makes it look like Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers) and immediately started winning hearts and minds. He hands out fliers, rapidly gains meeting attendees, and opens a credit union depending on donations to lend workers money. It's there we see the beginnings of the inevitable opposition, initially in the form of the local sheriff voicing suspicions of a Marxist insurrection ("Communists?" Chavez says. "We're Catholic. How can we be Communists?").
John Malkovich adds depth as Bogdanovich (an immigrant himself, the film reminds us more than once), one of the local farm kingpins determined to crush the movement, first by enlisting Mexican nationals to fill in for striking workers, then eventually enlisting the help of President Richard Nixon to counteract the effects of the union-engineered grape boycott.
Still, the film seems simplistic and one-sided, content to portray the growers as racist, ticked-off white men trying to outwit the help. But nobody said a film titled "Cesar Chavez" would have two sides (and some of the grimace-inducing news clips of Gov. Ronald Reagan ripping the workers show that this portrayal has some seeds of truth).
Peña picks up steam (and sympathy) as the story progresses, and his character suddenly finds himself not only squaring off against farm owners and his son, but the ranks of his own union. Throughout it all, Chavez takes his nonviolent approach to any length to gain victory.
But was he really the saint the film insists he was? The best biopics examine their subject's vices as well as their virtues. Luna and screenwriters Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton obviously view Chavez as an unimpeachable hero, which may not allow the central character to grow as much as he should.
While the times in the film slowly change, the Chavez at the end of the movie is still the noble Chavez we got 90 minutes earlier. Perhaps Chavez's worst fault was that he didn't spend enough time with his bullied son. But the filmmakers didn't seem to want to explore any other possibilities.
"Cesar Chavez" is an unspectacular and occasionally dry look at a chapter of America's civil rights history often overlooked in favor of another movement that was taking place at the same time thousands of miles away. It's not filmmaking at its best, but it certainly does a credible job in telling a story that needs telling.
Rating: PG-13 (some violence and language)
Cast: Michael Pena, John Malkovich, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Wes Bentley
Director: Diego Luna
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes; screened in English and Spanish, check theaters for schedule