The reason the television miniseries works so well when attempting to chronicle a huge historical event is simple: time. Lots of it. Ken Burns routinely takes 20 hours of PBS space to document whatever subject with which he's most recently become obsessed. And when you take the narrative route, padding that history with fictional characters whose lives crystallize that era's zeitgeist, it takes even longer. But whether it's a multi-night examination of Prohibition or two full seasons of Downton Abbey, you need a lot of time.
This movie is two hours and 20 minutes long. And it's about Mexico's 1926 Cristero War, during which Christian revolutionaries rebelled against an anti-Catholic government that had begun banning religious services and killing priests. There's a large ensemble cast of big names like Andy Garcia and Peter O'Toole and Ruben Blades and rising character actors like Academy Award-nominated Catalina Sandina Moreno and Drive's Oscar Isaac. Eva Longoria's in it, too. And you know what you can't do in two hours and 20 minutes? That's right, tell everyone's personal story of triumph or tragedy while covering all the factual bases of a complicated religious civil war. Someone -- like, say, Eva Longoria -- gets their story cut. So why not three hours? Why not four? Why not even longer, then sell it to Telemundo in both English and Spanish versions as a miniseries so people will actually see it?
It's in Spanish-accented English, by the way. And that's weird, too. Because every once in a while characters will pop off a Spanish word, an easy one that even the monolinguals can get, but for no good reason, an utterly random linguistic hiccup meant to reassure the audience that it's all still taking place in Mexico. Think of those movies set in ancient Rome or outer space where everyone sounds like they're from a vague, undefined Europe. It's like that.
More to the point, regardless of its dialect and running time: it's as lifeless as a high school history textbook. The period details look good and it's so sincere it could attract The Great Pumpkin. But battle sequences don't excite like they should, trite dialogue makes sure nobody on screen ever speaks like a real human caught being in the middle of a life-shattering event like war, the prominent inclusion of child soldiers (who are directed by first-timer Dean Wright to the film's worst acting) causes a hardened atheist character to turn back to his faith and the gray areas of this universe don't just take a back seat to the black and white, they get shot in the head and left by the side of a dusty road.
Bummer, because it's the kind of now-obscure subject matter that could be fascinating if done well, but here just feels like an obligation. And yeah there's going to be a test, so good luck at not falling asleep in class.