Review: “Defiance”

January 17, 2009 at 10:27 pm Leave a comment

Hot on the heels of Valkyrie, director Edward Zwick gives us the little-known tale of Jewish refugees fighting to stay alive in the forests of World War II Poland, while the German military closes in around them.  But, it wasn’t just the Germans they were fighting; internal conflicts arose and moral questions plagued the group.

The center of this is Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), the eldest of the Bielski Brothers and the leader of group of refugees (called the Bielksi Partisans).  He takes it upon himself to try and save as many Jewish lives as possible, even at the protest of his younger brother, Zus (Liev Schrieber).  Zus, being the realist, sees the refugees as extra mouths to feed with food they don’t have.  He wants to fight, and joins a local Soviet guerrilla force to deal some payback on the Germans.  Their youngest brother is Asael (Jamie Bell), who falls in love with one of the girls living in the forest with them.

What I found interesting was not how they survived for several years in the forest, but what happened while they were trying to survive.  Early on in the film, the elder Bielksi’s go out and kill German soldiers while trying to secure food for their growing village.  What they end up doing is going on revenge killings, taking out not just German soldiers, but locals who aid the Germans in the hunt for Jews.  This leads to some ethical questions as more and more of the villagers want revenge for their lives being destroyed.  They see the Bielksi’s are hypocrites as they are allowed to kill, but the villagers are not.  It’s these kinds of questions and problems that I find more interesting than watching them kill.

The film runs around 2 hrs and 15 mins, and I think it’s a tad too long.  My issue with Defiance is that Edward Zwick is trying to paint too broad a portrait with the story.  He covers everything, from familial in-fighting to questions of loyalty and treason.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t cover any of these particularly well.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the film, it’s just that it gets a little predictable.  Roger Ebert said it best in his review:

“The story of “Defiance” has all the makings of a deep emotional experience, but I found myself oddly detached.”

Basically, Zwick is very good at telling a Hollywood-ized version of such a compelling tale. For example, while I was watching it, I kept thinking to myself, “Ok, here’s the part where they question Tuvia’s leadership.  And now comes the part where he proves himself to them.  Oh, and here’s the part where he might have to risk someone he cares about.  And now it’s time for the inspirational speech.”  Defiance runs through the typical war movie conventions without breaking any new ground.

That being said, the principle actors (Craig, Schrieber, and Bell) are all very good, and the supporting cast is fine as well.  They play their roles with earnest and honesty, without having to resort to genre cliche’s (that becomes a script and directing problem).  When the action hits, it hits pretty hard as you really feel for these resistance fighters.  Watching them become outnumbered and then gunned down is quite sad.

Defiance is admirable for telling this kind of story and raising these types of moral questions.  Despite some detractors saying that Zwick and Co. left out some important tidbits (like the Naliboki Massacre), this is a film worth seeing for history buffs.  This is an excellent counterpart to Valkyrie, which focused on suspense; Defiance focuses on the humanity of people at war with themselves.

8/10

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