La Guerra Civil is ostensibly a conventional sports documentary about the feud between legendary pugilists Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez. In broad strokes, the film tracks the course of both of their careers in the lead up to their big 1996 clash (a fight eleven year old me watched live on television). Chávez, a product of the streets of Tijuana, was the classic fighter who happens to box. De La Hoya, the Golden Boy, was a handsome, urbane, ultra-prospect of the sport. It is one of the most perfect studies in opposites one could hope to find.
On the basic merits, the story works. Director Eva Longoria Bastón (ABC’s Desperate Housewives, Over Her Dead Body as an actor) well constructs the narrative arcs of both fighters career and the clear discrepancy in their styles. Both Chávez and De La Hoya are willing interview subjects and Longoria Bastón fills in the story with family members, trainers, boxing experts, and a few celebrity fans. The talking heads all help ably fill in the personalities of the fighters and how they drew disparate fanbases. As one point outs “Chávez bled for Mexico. De La Hoya bled for nobody.” Chávez drew bloodthirsty diehards while De La Hoya drew in a previously untapped fanbase of young women.
If La Guerra Civil were merely about the lead up to this enormous boxing match, the film would feel like a solid addition to a documentary franchise like ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. Longoria Bastón, however, has far grander ambitions. Rather than play the Wikipedia checklist of each fighter’s life, including the problematic allegations that hover around the athletes outside of the squared circle, Longoria Bastón analyzes both athletes as allegorical figures for Mexican cultural tension.
Julio César Chávez is the “true” Mexican from Tijuana who never left his homeland. Oscar De La Hoya is the American born son of emigrants from Mexico. De La Hoya is, in fact, an American Olympic Gold Medalist. As one interview subject explains, De La Hoya played golf while real Mexicans were supposed to work the golf course. Longoria Bastón understands innately that athletes are very much a product of what we imprint upon them. Her film is less interested in the minutiae of their training, and more in how they serve as cultural avatars for an emigrant tension deeply felt by many Mexicans.
When the film delves into Chávez’s struggles with cocaine, it is far less interested in how Chávez struggled than in how the fans responded. Chávez’s nightlife became part of his appeal. Both Chávez and De La Hoya recall seeing one another at 6 AM the week before their fight – as Chávez returned home from a night out and De La Hoya went for a training run. How much of a warrior must Chávez be if he can stay out until 6 AM and still kick some ass? The fact that De La Hoya actually grew up in a very rough section of East Los Angeles with a father who viewed him as a “business commodity” doesn’t fit the fan narrative and thus is brushed aside by supporters on both sides.
The results of the fight, and the subsequent rematch, are almost footnotes to the tension the build-up generated. It’s even more telling that the two seem to have a well earned respect for one another. De La Hoya still appreciates Chávez as a personal hero while Chávez lightly chides De La Hoya over his once good looks. There’s no tension between these two in real life… and that’s the point.
There have been countless great boxing documentaries over the years: from When We Were Kings and Tyson to Unforgivable Blackness and Cradle of Champions. Boxing is a sport that lends itself well to compelling narrative arcs. Longoria Bastón’s debut film wisely investigates how fighters become cultural avatars and as a result finds itself standing proud among the ranks of great boxing documentaries.
La Guerra Civil debuted at Sundance yesterday. It will be released on sports streaming service DAZN later this year.