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Defiance ***
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Craig (right) takes his vodka straight, not shaken or stirred, in the WWII drama Defiance.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein. Rated R.

Driven from their homes by Nazi collaborators, their families slaughtered and their fellow Jews being exterminated en masse, three brothers and a small legion of fellow survivalists decide to fight back. History is littered with accounts of European Jews who chose to ignore the Nazi menace until it was too late, dismissing reports of genocide as far-fetched. As Edward Zwick’s Defiance illustrates, theirs was not the only response.

Based on Nechama Tec’s book of the same name, Defiance follows the largest known community of resistors – the Bielski partisans, who took refuge in the forests of Nazi-occupied Belarus and beat their oppressors back for two arduous years. Led by Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), a rugged peasant thrust into a savior-like role he neither craves nor enjoys, they are downtrodden and malnourished but steadfast in their desire to maintain a civil society in the direst of circumstances.

It’s not easy. Tuvia’s own brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber), would rather hunt down Hitler’s henchmen than carve out a meager existence in the woods, and there are some inclined to follow his lead.

The brothers, with their younger sibling Asael (Jamie Bell, of Jumper), fight each other with almost as much vigor as they save for their would-be captors, and their fraternal struggle is well played by two actors who seem capable equally of compassion and, when necessary, brute force. Fueled by rage, they have essentially the same mission, but their approaches, like their temperaments, are dramatically different.

Defiance is a movie of Big Moments, whether they arrive in the form of impassioned speeches (of which there are many) or as quieter interludes, when less hardy members of the Bielski clan succumb to the elements. Zwick understands the gravity of those moments, but his tendency to overplay them, with the help of James Newton Howard’s sometimes intrusive score, undercuts their impact. Defiance is the work of a veteran director who knows which notes to hit and when to hit them, but we never forget that he’s working in Hollywood.

It is, however, an affecting production, which is as much a credit to Zwick’s professionalism as to the freshness of his subject. Defiance has the rare distinction of tackling the Holocaust from an angle previously unexplored.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Munich, in which a squad of Israeli executioners avenged their compatriots slain at the 1972 Olympics, Zwick’s movie allows us the cathartic thrill of watching the Bielski partisans violently dispatching their enemies. It’s not pretty, nor is it staged without a hint of moral conflict – these are farmers, doctors and merchants, not cold-blooded killers – but it makes for a compelling account of righteous payback and hard-earned survival.

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