In the majority of sporting events, there is more at stake than a final score. From the career trajectories of those who take part in the game to the cultural, political and social factors represented, the legions of fans on both sides have a number of horses in the running (proverbial or otherwise). That was certainly the case for “Ultimate Glory,” a June 1996 boxing match between Mexico-born Julio César Chávez and East Los Angeles-born Oscar De La Hoya, whose parents emigrated from Mexico. Representing different aspects of Mexican culture, the fight caused a societal riff and is the main event of Eva Longoria’s catchy, albeit stereotypical, documentary Bastón. Civil war.
Taking on a much broader scope than just the match, the documentary also serves as a double biopic of Chávez and De La Hoya, from their upbringing through that match to the present day. It’s quite a wealth of material for 100 minutes which means a breakneck pace is the name of the game – filled with plenty of talking heads including our two main subjects and no shortage of family, celebrities and journalists . The complexities and complications of those lives can be glossed over with so much ground to cover, from De La Hoya’s former boxing father, Joel Sr., forcing him into competition at a young age, to tantalizing detail that Chávez’s fame means he has time to deal with the popes. , presidents and drug lords – not to mention his own partying and drug addiction habits.
A major guideline is De La Hoya’s personal struggle to represent both American and Mexican culture—as reflected in her boxing dress—and not be fully accepted by either. Thanks to sex appeal, he brought a new legion of female fans into the doors, but was booed by groups of people in celebratory parades and was never accepted by the wider Mexican community, a lack solidified identity that has always harassed him. With distinct personalities and diverse struggles outside the ring, these formidable fighters – one a reigning king, the other a rising star – create the irresistible rivalry necessary for any sports movie.
What is most fascinating in Civil war hears the two boxers reflect on the events of a quarter of a century ago. With Chávez’s devilish smile and cunning energy and De La Hoya’s suave and insightful recollection of the importance of facing one of his idols, we wish Eva Longoria Bastón had convinced them to have a meeting face to face to see what might transpire. But the two are clearly putting on another layer of performance to reflect their golden years inside the ring, which is quite entertaining on its own. We hear from George Lopez, who recounts how “boxing is the opera of Latinos”, and Mario Lopez, who recalls what a deeply inspiring figure Julio César Chávez was. While there is certainly a skill in creating a film with perfect soundbite after perfect soundbite, between energizing stock footage and a typically animated score, Civil war feels a little too polite, unsure of taking a moment to unpack the intriguing threads he quickly throws out.
“Sport is not just a microcosm of our society. This is our society,” notes sports critic Rudy Mondragón in the opening moments of the documentary, which carries the symptom that plagues many documentaries: starting with more or less a trailer highlighting what’s to come. Many compelling documentaries could be made from what floats around this film – Mondragón’s quote above; how, throughout history, sports have exploited race for spectacle; how someone can feel isolated by their nationality in their country of origin; the toll such a brutal sport and fame takes on mind and body, etc., but Civil war wants to entertain above all else. As such, it succeeds on a fundamental level, but one might wish for more in-depth unpacking of the complex queries it raises as the final punch is thrown.
Civil war premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.