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
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.