(2008 ) Director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond)
Like holocaust movies? Here’s another one.
Defiance, the umpteenth WWII-era film to be released this Oscar season, begins interestingly enough by relocating the usual Nazis-hunting-Jews-in-the-ghetto story to the picturesque Belarusian woods, but the film quickly loses steam as it devolves into the standard Edward Zwick action-drama: man’s life falls apart, man learns the ways of others, man becomes humble savior of the downtrodden. It’s so trite that it’s hard to believe it was based on a true story.
The film follows the brothers Bielski—even-keeled Tuvia (Daniel Craig), rageaholic Zus (Liev Schreiber), googly-eyed wimp Asael (Jamie Bell), and young Ronald Weasley—who escape to the forest after their parents are murdered by Belarusian Nazi sympathizers. They inadvertently pick up more Jewish folk along the way until they find themselves shielding an ever-growing camp of survivors not only from the elements, but also from the political and social turmoil forming inside their fledgling camp. Meanwhile, the Nazis and their kindred tighten the net around the forest, setting up a final showdown as contrived as it is unlikely.
The first act of Defiance is promising, if only because it introduces Tuvia and Zus as unscrupulous, oft-brutal men of a particularly self-serving brand of morality. Revenge and survival drive them early on, but as they their camp grows and they begin to butt heads over leadership and purpose, Tuvia flowers into suddenly altruistic hero of renown—at one point even addressing his people atop a white stallion—while Zus sulks in the background, more concerned with vengeful action than saving lives. Their archetypes are stretched to the limit by hackneyed plot points and a woefully uninteresting second act, but that stretching is exacerbated by the constant flip-flopping of personalities between the two main characters. In one moment, Tuvia yearns for violent revenge; the next, he is pleading for peace while Zus takes up arms; later, Tuvia is back to killing to keep order in their camp. It’s as if the screenwriters forgot which character was which, then decided that either one would do for any action or line of dialogue.
Sadly, Defiance clings desperately to an antiquated idea of herodom, urging the audience to gasp and tense up at the tremendous weight these characters must bear in the sake of goodness. By the end of the picture the leads have acquired godlike status that exists only in Greek mythology, except the Bielskis are much more humble, noble, caring, wise, and handy with automatic weaponry than that pompous jerk Heracles ever was. This isn’t to say that Defiance is a terrible film; performances from Schreiber and several others are decent, and the cinematography and editing are mostly inspired. It’s just that a movie based on events so amazingly real shouldn’t be anchored by characters so remarkably dull.
Rating: Two of Five Stars