It was only a matter of time before WWII/Holocaust drama and Edward Zwick found each other. “Defiance” is the perfect little-known underdog war story that perfectly fits Zwick’s (“Glory,” “The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond”) tastes. Historical war drama with a heavy action slant as per usual, “Defiance” has all the elements that anyone who’s enjoyed Zwick’s past work is looking for: lush cinematography, gripping action and a strong leading male role played by an elite actor. At the same time, for a Holocaust story that hasn’t already received the silver screen treatment (a rarity these days it seems), “Defiance” seems like it’s been done before and doesn’t fully extend its audience the extraordinary experience its unique premise suggest it capable of.
For a different take on the Holocaust, “Defiance” follows the true story of a band of Jews who averted capture in Belarussia but were forced to hide out in its forests. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber play Tuvya and Zus Bielski, two daring, able-bodied and rather vengeful brothers who lead the group of nearly 1,000 Jews.
The plot’s most unlike other Holocaust films in that it doesn’t require pity and horror from its audience in order to become emotionally attached. That attachment is not as strong compared to these other films, but in “Defiance,” the Jews are largely in charge of their destiny. Craig’s character has no less of a self-awarded license to kill than James Bond does when it comes to the liberties he takes killing German soldiers. At times it almost becomes tough watching Craig and Schreiber blowing Nazi brains out, and the whole revenge factor with the Holocaust is somewhat uncomfortable.
I welcomed this feeling, but the script doesn’t pray on our challenge stomaching some of its images and just lets them fizzle out before they can turn into something deep. The characters never become as troubled as we are by what they do, which really holds “Defiance” back. The neatest part of the script by Zwick and Clayton Frohman is its old testament imagery. The story of the Jewish people has sadly been about constantly escaping persecution and the way the film tries to reawaken the images of Exodus and running from the Egyptians and crossing the Red Sea really puts this film in a greater context of Jewish history. It’s not about the tragedy of the Holocaust itself, it eludes to being a lot more.
Still, there’s more to be desired on this front too — it’s not exactly made integral to the story being told. There’s a lot to enjoy about Zwick’s film as there always is with his ability to make history adrenaline-pumping, even though the story underachieves more than many of his other films have. The action is exciting and modern without detracting from the historical context and the forest is captured beautifully on camera. If only it had been written in a way that would’ve gripped its audience with tender, intimate scenes revealing character instead of speeches about fighting.
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Written by: Clayton Frohman, Edward Zwick, Nechama Tec (book)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos