*Photo Credit: Collider
I find historical, “based on a true story” films to be notoriously hit-or-miss. History is, in reality, filled to the brim with incredible stories that yearn to be told, but the execution of such retellings often fail to portray their characters as the real people whom they actually were. Underdeveloped archetypes and caricatures run rampant, reducing the true glory of such events to merely over-dramatized history lessons, lacking the real soulfulness that gives meaning to human endeavors.
Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008) toes that line, merely offering adequacy amidst a setting that demands much more: the Holocaust. Given the weight of the subject matter, only the strongest films can stand, while “good” films are crushed by the magnitude of what they attempted to portray.
Defiance’s struggles begin quite early in the film. Through painfully framed exposition, Director Zwick introduces the viewer to Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber) Bielski, a pair of Jewish brothers who witness the massacre and deportation of their village after the Nazi invasion of Belorussia. While hiding in the forest, the Bielskis quickly accumulate a following of fellow Jewish survivors, who all look to the Bielskis for protection and provision.
As their numbers continually grow, Tuvia and Zus fight over how to lead the group. Zus wants to join the Soviet partisans in fighting the Germans, but the Soviets would not welcome the many women, children, and elderly of the group. On the other hand, Tuvia wants to build up the camp in the woods, particularly through rescuing the residents of a nearby ghetto. This disagreement leads Zus to leave with a team of men to join the Soviets, while Tuvia successfully evacuates the ghetto but is left with the task of leading the now-hundreds strong group—most of whom cannot defend themselves.
The feud between Zus and Tuvia is among the more poorly-executed elements of the film. Zus is essentially one-dimensional for the majority of the film, motivated solely by the need for vengeance against the Germans. Tuvia is a more well-constructed character, but much of his development occurs in the latter thirds of the film, once the brothers have split up. Beyond this point, Zus is nearly abandoned by the script, checking in as sparingly as possible.
Tuvia, conversely, becomes the clear protagonist of the film, leading the viewer through an achingly slow second act. Despite glimmers of potential from secondary characters, especially Asael (Jamie Bell), the younger brother of Tuvia and Zus, Director Zwick fails in his attempts to depict the daily realities of the Jewish camp.
I don’t mean to make Defiance sound like a terrible film, because it most certainly has redeeming strengths. The overall tone of the film is spot-on for a film about the Holocaust, and Director Zwick never downplays the gravity of the circumstances around the film’s events. And while my biggest critiques of Defiance concern character development, there are still plenty of characters who are genuinely likable, albeit one-dimensional. As I stated earlier, Jamie Bell shines throughout the film, while Mark Feuerstein provides levity as Isaac, a young intellectual who can barely use a hammer, but can talk your ear off about politics or philosophy.
Zwick also flexes some cinematic muscles at points during the film, displaying the skills he has cultivated through such films as Glory (1989) and The Last Samurai (2003). A particularly striking scene consists of cuts between a wedding in the forest and an ambush by Bielski’s partisans on a Nazi convoy. With a gorgeous wintry backdrop and brilliant timing, this scene stands out as among the best war movie scenes that I can remember. Even if this scene were the sole redeeming quality of Defiance, it would warrant a full viewing just to catch that brief sequence.
Unfortunately, most of the more action-oriented scenes in the film are derived from fiction rather than fact. In reality, the Bielski partisans avoided conflict as much as possible, which may be the reason that many of such scenes feel out of place (the wedding/ambush scene was more indicative of the type of combat that actually occurred).
Defiance also smudges the historical record to portray the Bielskis as more righteous people. While neither Tuvia nor Zus are close to saints in the film, topics such as their treatment of the local villagers and their relationship with the Soviet partisans are downplayed in favor of a more digestible moral presentation.
Defiance is surely not a bad movie, but it just simply isn’t enough. Rather than a solemn spectacle celebrating heroism, exploring dark issues of morality, and remembering the tragedy of the Holocaust, Defiance feels like a cookie-cutter “history” film, telling a blandly palatable story about a far more complex and mentally demanding issue. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from watching the film, but I won’t be racing to watch it again either.
Wagner’s Watch-worthiness: 6/10