- Directed by Ed Zwick
- Written by Ed Zwick and Clayton Frohman
- Starring Daniel Craig and Liev Shreiber
- Classification: 14A
An action movie, a historical drama and, by no means last, an alternative to the often-portrayed victimization of Jews, Defiance finds an inspirational story on the margins of the central horror. Based on the true-life story of a group of Jewish brothers who led a resistance movement against the Nazis during the Second World War, the movie is what a colleague calls a "not-a-Holocaust" film. You imagine the producers making a pitch to the studio as an inspiring story with the guy who plays James Bond that happens to be set in the Second World War.
The story of the 1,200-member Bielski commune, formed by Jewish escapees living in the woods, has been recorded in documentary films and in books, including the 1993 account by historian Nechama Tec, on which Edward Zwick and Clayton Frohman's screenplay is based. A movie about Jewish resistance is definitely unusual (an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 Jews escaped into the forests of Eastern Europe and fought alongside other resistance fighters), but the treatment feels as familiar as a movie of the week.
Daniel Craig plays Tuvia, a smuggler who returns to his village in the summer of 1941 after his family members are among the thousands of local Jews who have been turned over to the Nazis by local authorities. Liev Shreiber plays his hot-headed younger sibling, Zus, who is less interested in babysitting a growing commune of refugees than he is in striking back at the Nazis. As Tuvia and Zus represent two poles of opinion - preservation of the community versus vengeance - their younger brother, Asael (Jamie Bell), is torn between the two. Throughout, everyone speaks in Eastern-European-accented English, which represents Yiddish, while scenes involving Russians have English subtitles.
Tuvia, the one-time social pariah, grows into his leadership role. The village in the woods reinstates religious ceremonies and cares for the sick, and each brother takes a beautiful "forest wife," (Alexa Davalos, Mia Wasikowska and Iben Hjejle) to help them through the cold winters for the duration of the war. Hiding in the woods seems to be not entirely onerous. Tuvia gets sick, and softened by love - but not too soft. He rallies long enough to put a bullet through the brain of one of his men who is threatening the fragile social harmony.
Zwick spares no opportunity to emphasize these were tough guys.
"Is he a Jew?" asks a child in wonder as he sees Daniel Craig, astride a white horse, riding through the woods with the wonder of a child pointing at Superman flying overhead.
When Zus decides he wants to join a partisan group under the authority of the Red Army, the Russian officer sneers: "Jews don't fight." "These Jews do," responds Zus, and proceeds to turn into a kind of Rambo, shooting up Nazis and blowing up tanks.
Everyone, it seems, speaks in grand pronouncements: "Every day of freedom is like an act of faith." Or: "I almost lost my faith but you were sent by God to save us." The latter statement is made by a dying schoolteacher as Tuvia leads his commune across a stretch of water to safety, like Moses in a tight-fitting leather jacket.
Every gesture, every scene, feels too pointed: The knowing glances between impending romantic couples, the kibitzing dialogue and the noble rallying speeches. There are even carefully apportioned moments of ignobility in the Jewish commune, including a scene where a captured German soldier is savagely beaten to death - to remind us of their human imperfection.
Yet for all its good intentions, Defiance offers nothing revelatory in showing that Jews can be strong and heroic.
What is puzzling is how Edward Zwick has taken an extraordinary real-life story about a handful of people who defied huge odds, and turned it into an utterly conventional war movie.