Defiance is based on the true story of Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber). They live in Poland during the time of Nazi occupation and, like other Jews, are trying to stay alive. The brothers have very different views about what they should be doing. Zus believes in retaliation - fighting back against the Nazis and killing as many of them as they can. Tuvia - despite getting eye-for-an-eye revenge in one early scene - feels it's more important to save as many Jews as possible. This leads to a rift between them. Zus goes off and aligns with the Russian army, while Tuvia gathers some survivors and heads deep into the woods, where he establishes a small village in which they can all hide. The youngest Bielski sibling, Asael (Jamie Bell), opts to go with Tuvia.
The longer Tuvia stays in the forest, the more people he picks up. The village soon begins to grow, and it becomes a challenge to find enough food to feed everyone. Tuvia lays down strict laws, such as forbidding pregnancies because it would only mean more mouths to feed. He also has his hands full trying to keep the Nazis from locating them. Meanwhile, Zus helps the Russians fight the Nazis head-on, only to discover that anti-Semitism exists in multiple places.
The true story of the Bielski brothers is important. More than 1,200 Jews were saved as a result of their actions. Much like Schindler's List, this is a Holocaust story about how someone came up with a way to save thousands of lives. Unfortunately, the comparisons end there. Despite some effective individual scenes, Defiance takes a little-known piece of history that needs no embellishments and movie-fies it. What I mean is that the story unfolds in a way that conveniently fits into a movie formula, at times awkwardly so. I suspect that the reality of the Bielskis' tale is more dramatic and interesting than the over-inflated drama we get here.
Edward Zwick is a director whose didactic style of storytelling sometimes succeeds (Blood Diamond) and sometimes falters (The Siege). Defiance falls closer to the latter. The problem is that Zwick tells the story through a series of unnecessary clichés and conventions. There are under-developed romantic subplots for Tuvia and Asael. The sibling tension between Tuvia and Zus also plays out predictably, with Zus at one point reappearing right on cue to bail his brother out of jeopardy. Many of the conflicts between the survivors and the Nazis are infused with all kinds of stunts, beautifully filmed explosions, and general mayhem. At times, Defiance plays more like an action movie than the award-worthy prestige film the studio is making it out to be. We even get corny dialogue, like this exchange between Tuvia and his love interest, Lilka (Alexa Davalos):
Perhaps the most egregious cliché is the moment where Tuvia gets up on a white horse and gives the crowd a rousing speech about freedom. All I could think was, Man, Ed Zwick must really love Braveheart!
All these things get in the way of a fascinating historical event, making it feel like a modified version of what really happened. It's a shame because there are things in Defiance that work extremely well and which suggest the picture it might have been. I was particularly intrigued by the moral choices Tuvia has to make. At times, the things he does seem to go against his own code, yet he has to do them for the greater good. There is an excellent scene in which his authority in the village is challenged by someone who will undoubtedly bring trouble upon the group. Tuvia has to make a snap decision about what to do, weighing the consequences of it quickly.
It's also hard not to respond to a tale of survival such as this. Zwick spends considerable time showing how the village operates, how everyone contributes what they can, and how everyone works together. During one dramatic sequence, the Jews must flee the forest, but come to a seemingly impassable body of water. Using their joint strength as a commodity, they find a way to cross.
There are just enough scenes like these to make Defiance watchable, yet at the same time, they also make you realize how much better the film could have been. The actors are fine, although who their characters are as individuals is secondary to what they physically do. There's some worthy stuff to be found here; that said, you can't escape the feeling that reading the historical accounts of what the Bielski brothers did would be infinitely more satisfying than watching this occasionally hokey film adaptation of it.
( 1/2 out of four)
Defiance is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.
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