Defiance was one of the few Edward Zwick movies I hadn’t seen, so the recent addition to the Netflix catalogue was a welcome one. Zwick – helmer of the undoubtedly great Glory and Blood Diamond and the possibly-great-but-jury’s-maybe-still-out Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai – is a filmmaker who can balance blockbuster epicness and fragile emotional sentiment like few other directors. Defiance is no exception in this regard, although it suffers in ways that some of Zwick’s previous films do not.
Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, Belarusian Jew and oldest brother to three youngers. The Bielski brothers flee and take refuge in the deep forest when Nazi aggression escalates and their parents are murdered. The forest hides them well enough until more and more refugees hear the tale of the Bielski camp and show up for food, shelter, safety, comfort, destabilizing the small hideout with each new hungry child. As the camp grows more rules and hierarchies must be created and maintained and enforced, and it falls to Tuvia to protect his countrymen against the German threat.
Craig is fine in the role, but it’s the two middle Bielski brothers – Zus, played by Liev Schreiber, and Asael, played by Jamie Bell – who end up having the meatier roles. Zus leaves the camp to offer what services he feels are more necessary among a group of Soviet partisans – namely, sabotaging German patrols and supply lines with guerrilla-style attacks. This provides Defiance with some perspective outside of the forest, which is much needed in the long runtime, and Zus’s encounters and clashes with his “fellow comrades” provide some of the more interesting exchanges in the film. Asael falls in love with a young woman at the Bielski camp, and he grows from a timid and helpless young lad into a headstrong and confident warrior. Both Schreiber and Bell handle their roles impressively.
That said, all of the Bielski brothers are a bit underwritten. While the acting is fine, the characters achieve what we expect them to achieve. Tuvia especially is fairly predictable throughout the course of Defiance, filling the role of the reluctant leader and only once doing anything that seems surprising to anyone who has heard this story before, or a story like it. Wondering why I haven’t mentioned that fourth Bielski brother yet? Could be because the kid hardly shows up at all throughout Defiance. I understand if his character was young or shy or if we just don’t know much about the real Aron Bielski (although even now, in 2014, he’s actually still alive). The problem is that the other Bielski brothers seem to forget about him, too, which just seems plain unbrotherlike.
Amidst the qualms one could have with a war/survival movie like Defiance, that one is admittedly minor. The real problem – if there truly is one – is in the typical Hollywoodization of the actual true story. Should we be upset or annoyed that most of the battles and fight scenes and explosions that happen in Defiance never happened in real life? If we are, it’s probably because most of these scenes seem out of place inside the forest survival tale we were promised. The most glaring is in the final act, when the forestdwellers escape their pursuers through an extensive and dangerous marsh…only to be met with a German tank on the other side. This is perfectly plausible, sure – but it gets decidedly less so when Tuvia begins to Rambo it across a cadre of Nazis, and when Zus shows up like Han Solo at the end of New Hope to save his brother.
These faults aside, Defiance is a generally effective war tale from an epic filmmaker. Notably, there is no explicit antagonist here, no evil Nazi face on which we focus as “the bad guy” in order to focus on the Bielskis as “the good guys”. Zwick himself has noted that that Defiance is about more than good guys vs. bad guys, and I think the resistance of adding such a character shows some impressive restraint on Zwick’s part. The scenes with the Russians and the set-up to the forest encampment provide more than enough scope for the tale to breathe, and the forest only feels claustrophobic when Zwick intends it to. It’s far from his best film, but considering he made Leaving Normal it’s not his worst either.