Any biography of Emilio Aguinaldo would be a tricky endeavor. There is a lot of ground to cover, and plenty of controversy to unravel. El Presidente tackles those challenges head on, running madly through the entirety of Aguinaldo’s life, while providing its own clear interpretations of historical events. The final product certainly feels ambitious, with clever touches abound. But taken as a whole, it is a decidedly mixed experience. There are clever touches abound, but the lack of focus hurts it in the end.
The movie takes glimpses at the life of Emilio Aguinaldo (E.R. Ejercito). It begins with him as a child, unaware of the great life ahead of him, receiving a strange prediction from an elderly fortuneteller. The film follows him through the entirety of his life, stopping to examine significant historical events: his joining of the Katipunan, his leadership in Cavite, his conflict with Andres Bonifacio (Cesar Montano), the struggle for recognition of the country’s sovereignty, the tension with Antonio Luna, his flight from the American invaders, his eventual capture, and his life following the downfall of the Katipunan.
It’s a lot for one movie to cover, and the film does struggle under its own weight. The length is compounded by the film’s insistence on being an action film, with lengthy battle sequences that end up revealing very little about the main character. While the Battle at Tirad Pass is undoubtedly an important historical event, Aguinaldo wasn’t actually there, and it might have been more interesting dramatically to stay with Aguinaldo as he mulls over Gregorio del Pilar’s sacrifice. To their credit, the battles are often impressively staged, but the film already sags with just the telling of the story.
The way the film tells this story is intriguing. There’s an odd metaphysical element that pops up every now and then. And when it gets to the stickier points of our history (the Bonifacio and the Luna episodes), it flashes forward to an elderly Aguinaldo, writing his memoir, explaining his side of the story. They’re clever touches that add an odd bit of spice to what could have been a very sober retelling, but they happen so infrequently as to seem a tad out of place. Much of the film exists in a much more mundane space, with flawed characters trying to balance their commitment to the cause of freedom with personal preservation.
The best parts of this movie linger on weighty conversations, the members of a fledgling republic trying to figure out how best to do things, and often failing to come to agreement. Here the film reveals a strong viewpoint that informs the entire story. In the end, however, the film skews simplistic as it runs quickly through the later decades of the hero’s life, never staying long enough to really examine his decisions. The film just tries to cover too much, and a lot is lost along the way. As Aguinaldo, ER Ejercito isn’t particularly inspiring. He relies too much on his arms to convey emotion, his face apparently erring on the side of caution. The supporting cast is handicapped by an array of silly fake mustaches, but many still perform admirably.
El Presidente is deeply flawed as an entertainment, but there’s a lot in it to like. There’s a lot in it, period. It really tries to leave nothing out, to form as complete a picture of Aguinaldo as humanly possible. But movies can be limited in this function, at least while staying within the bounds of commercial filmmaking. The gumption is admirable, and its interpretation of history is intriguing. But taken as a whole, it ends up feeling bloated and awkward.