Michael Pena has spent years as one of Hollywood's most reliable character actors, always playing second fiddle to bigger-named stars who don't always have his ability. In the rare times he's been thrust in leading roles, such as in military drama The Lucky One and the cop thriller End of Watch, Pena has proven himself an actor capable of incredible sensitivity and reserves of strength. Both of those qualities come into play in the biggest role of his career, playing activist Cesar Chavez in Diego Luna's sophomore directorial effort.
Pena's performance as the charismatic union leader towers over the film itself, which sadly is too small in scope and formulaic to properly portray Chavez's influence. It's an oddly constructed biopic, one that begins well into Chavez's activism, but without giving us the proper context for it. What drove him to be the man he is when we first meet him? Picking up just as he and his wife Helen (America Ferrera) have gathered up their army of kids and moved to Delano, California, it jumps right into Chavez's fight to secure better working conditions for grape-picking migrant workers.
And so the film takes a fairly linear, undramatic approach to Chavez's battle against the powerful employers, local racists, and corrupt cops looking to squash his little rebellion. Things start off small, with Chavez and his loyal lieutenant Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) merging their small Mexican outfit with the Filipino workers who are in a similarly tough situation. They want better wages and safer working conditions, going on a 5-year strike using a path of non-violent resistance. It's an approach not all within Chavez's group would support, and he battled aggressive internal forces as much as external. To further champion his peaceful cause, Chavez would go on a 25-day hunger strike, putting his life at risk. It's a powerful act of self-sacrifice, and Pena perfectly embodies Chavez's commitment, but we never get a proper sense of how big the stakes are. We see the small victories against local and national wineries, most notably against the scheming Bogdanovich (John Malkovich), but where is the point where Chavez faces a genuine set back? Where is the point where the movement seems devastated beyond repair? Chavez's story is filled with moments such as these but they are barely addressed here, and it seems as if success is preordained. Also in need of a more thorough examination are his strained familial relationships. His wife worries about his safety while also throwing herself in harm's way, and Chavez struggles to connect with a son who has grown resentful.
Pena's understated performance is perfectly in sync with Luna's subtle direction, echoing the minimalist political dramas of Pablo Larrain. It's a competent step in this phase of Luna's career, but the film's low aspirations and unwillingness to show any flawed aspects of Chavez's character doom it to the realm of so-so biopics. Even so, Pena deserves any and all accolades that come his way. Hopefully this will lead to him getting more opportunities to shine.