Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Ed Zwick’s DEFIANCE (***1/2) is a square-jawed historical action-drama that hits all of the right notes. Based on an improbable but true story, the film is emotionally stirring and extremely entertaining in an old-fashioned way. Zwick, who has etched a solid career making big-budget dramas like GLORY, LEGENDS OF THE FALL, THE LAST SAMURAI, and BLOOD DIAMOND, is a filmmaker who likes to tackle socially relevant topics while infusing his films with a Hollywood sensibility. This process works in DEFIANCE, better than it did in other Zwick efforts like THE SIEGE, partly because the foundation that DEFIANCE is based on is extremely noble and well intentioned. The film tells the story of the Bielski brothers, Russian Jews who created a movable society of Jewish refugees in the forests of Belorussia during the height of WWII. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) is the stoic leader; Zus (Live Schreiber) is the trigger-happy fighter; Asael (Jamie Bell) is the more contemplative member of the group. Their plan was to save as many Jews from the concentration camps as they could, while killing as many Nazis as possible. The fact that this story is true eliminates the desire to scream “cliché!” or “that’s not possible!” It is possible. And it really happened. What these men did is nothing short of impossibly heroic, and to that end, they deserve a film like DEFIANCE to showcase their brave and selfless efforts.
After their parents are killed, Tuvia and Zus concoct a revenge scheme, and brutally retaliate for the deaths of their parents. When word comes that both of their wives (and in the case of Zus, his child) have been sent to the death camps, they are at odds with what they think they should be doing: saving lives or exacting countless acts of revenge-fueled violence. Tuvia and Asael stay with the group of refugees, building a make-shift community, creating laws, and trying to establish some sort of society, made up of men, women, and children, old, and young, healthy and sick. Zus leaves the group to fight with the Russian resistance. Friendship and romance blossoms in the forest for both Tuvia and Asael, while Zus gets his hands dirty with potentially duplicitous Russian soldiers while carrying out bloody raids on Nazi strongholds. DEFIANCE is, if nothing else, a riveting action film; the set-pieces are beautifully staged and handled by an expert technical crew. But unlike so many other attempts by Hollywood to combine human drama with the demands of the action genre, DEFIANCE remains true to what is most important – the lives and outcomes of the many people that the Bielski’s saved. By the end of the war, it has been stated that they saved over 1,200 Jews from being murdered.

As with any Zwick production, the film looks amazing. Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is lush and poetic while also having a gritty quality that really makes you feel like you’re trudging through the cold, damp forest with the group. It’s some of the best work of the year. There are many action scenes, some big, some small, all handled in a simple, coherent fashion. One scene in particular has an impressionistic tone to its violence which was extremely stylish. James Newton Howard’s score is terrific, pumping up the entire film without falling into the typical bombast that other films of this ilk tend to do. The tight, economical editing by Steven Rosenblum keeps this over-two-hour-film moving at a brisk but unhurried pace. And all of the performances are solid. Craig is all steely reserve while Schreiber gets to play into the inherent machismo of Zus. And Bell brings a tender quality to Asael; he might be the youngest of the three brothers but he’s certainly not at any disadvantages. Zwick does an excellent job with his direction, even if he can’t help but have Tuvia riding a white horse in a few scenes, a little too boldly exclaiming that the man was a savior. And a few of the lines in the script Zwick co-wrote with Clayton Frohman are a bit wooden. But that doesn’t keep DEFIANCE from kicking some serious butt when it needs too. Better than I expected overall, DEFIANCE is a worthy addition to the growing sub-genre of WWII films dealing with the Holocaust. It’s exciting, sad, and by it’s conclusion, very moving. These men were heroes, and without them, many generations of families would never have had a chance.

1 comment:

Joel said...

My dad saw this and loved it. I just wish it actually, you know, playing here. I'll be renting a buttload of movies next year. This'll be one of 'em.