Defiance is the story of three brothers who fought back. It’s the little known history of a community of Warsaw Ghetto refugees who survived in the Belarusian forests despite the constant threat of the Nazis. Based on the true story of the Bielski partisans, Defiance stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell as the three Jewish brothers who escaped the Nazis in Poland and fought to rescue 1200 Jews.
Defiance is two-thirds of a good movie. It’s hard to fault the idea of shedding some light on the brave men and women who fought back against the Nazis, but I think that simply because the movie tells an important story doesn’t necessarily mean it is good storytelling. Director Ed Zwick has most of the elements of a good story—compelling true premise, well known actors, dramatic conflict—but he puts it all together with all the spark of a wet match.
He’s done better in the past with similar material. Glory, the untold story of the US Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company was a masterful blend of historical fact and entertainment. Defiance, on the other hand, tries too hard to create unnecessary story elements. The basic premise of three brothers saving large groups of people is compelling enough, why muddy it up with superfluous romantic tangents? The peripheral plotlines add nothing to the overall movie, in fact, often they distract from the main focus. Add to that some clunky dialogue and the film’s 137 minute running time seems much longer.
Also, Zwick doesn’t take the time to show us how the brothers managed to build a giant village in the forest and yet go undetected by the Nazis. We are told several times that the woods are vast and dangerous, but they always seem to be near a roadway or farm, close to civilization. Surely someone would have spotted the smoke from their camp fires. Perhaps more time spent on showing us how isolated the refugees were and less time spent on romance would have given this movie more of a ring of authenticity.
When the movie sticks to the basic elements of the story—freedom, faith, protection against persecution—it works. When Craig says, “Every day of freedom is an act of faith, and if we should die, at least we die like human beings,” he gets to the meat of the story, only to be sidelined later by a rambling script.
Craig brings the same kind of physicality to the role of Tuvia as he dose to the James Bond movies, but here he is overshadowed by Schreiber who is ferocious as brother Zus. He’s a powerful presence on screen and almost out-Bonds James Bond.
Defiance is a remarkable story of courage, unfortunately, unremarkably told.