The Milagro Beanfield War

January 18, 2013

milagrobFor the better part of a decade, Robert Redford has been working on bringing John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War to the screen. Not as an acting job, but as the second installment of Redford’s directorial career, a career that began with an Oscar in 1980 for Ordinary People.

Redford’s main problem was finding a workable screenplay in Nichols’ largish novel (eventually David Ward, who wrote Redford’s The Sting, conquered the scripting job). Then the shooting itself was dogged by unpredictable weather at the New Mexico locations and by Redford’s own lackadaisical approach to matters of scheduling.

Having lavished all this attention on the property (not to mention a healthy chunk of change), Redford has made a surprisingly lightweight film. It’s not that Milagro is a bad movie, exactly, but it certainly is slim.

The storyline is extremely simple. A small New Mexico town is threatened by the proposed development of a resort community. One farmer (Chick Vennera) diverts the developer’s water to feed his own modest beanfield. The fatcat (Richard Bradford) has a dilemma; if he arrests the farmer, he risks poisonous publicity. But he can’t let the villagers get the upper hand.

That’s all there is; it taps into the oldest strain of little guy vs. the unfeeling system, this time set in the beguiling Chicano community and culture. To Redford’s credit, he does take pains to paint the stock characters in more complex colors. But most of them come out looking like stock characters.

There’s the weary sheriff (Ruben Blades) caught between the warring factions; the feisty businesswoman (Sonia Braga) who tries to organize the town against the money men, with some amusingly mixed results; the jaded ex-activist lawyer (John Heard) whom she tries to rejuvenate for the cause; the gangly graduate student (Daniel Stern) who falls in love with the people he’s observing; the easygoing mayor (Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender).

Presiding over it all is an ancient (Carlos Riquelme, a popular Mexican star) who discusses everything with his pig and with the angel (Roberto Carricart) who passes by now and then. Riquelme is the film’s touchstone, a mischievous presence evidently close to Redford’s heart, and he sets the movie’s whimsical tone.

The ensemble is attractive, relaxed, and the film is easy on the eyes and mind. Thus one inclines to excuse the slapdash nature of the storytelling, the vague sense that we’re missing some crucial connective tissue.

Not quite so easy to excuse is the literal-minded prettiness of Robbie Greenberg’s cinematography (of the oh-look-there’s-a-rainbow variety), or the coziness of the film’s finale, which presents an awfully neat (and naïve) way out. It’s a bit difficult to believe some of the last-minute changes of heart, and I for one couldn’t shake the nagging sense that Redford didn’t quite believe them either. It’s hard to dislike The Milagro Beanfield War, but it’s also hard to champion it.

First published in the Herald, March 31, 1988

I don’t know what I meant by Redford’s approach to scheduling; must have been something I read in Premiere. But then not much about this movie sticks in the mind, beyond the agreeable cast.