- Rated R
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All photos © Paramount Vantage
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t's a shame that the holidays coincide with awards season, because as my colleague David Medsker pointed out in his review of "Revolutionary Road," this December is home to some of the most depressing movies of the year. Edward Zwick’s “Defiance” isn’t quite as melancholy as some of the other Oscar hopefuls, but despite its somewhat uplifting ending, it’s kind of difficult to classify a film about World War II as being "feel-good." The fact that there are two other WWII dramas (“Valkyrie” and “The Reader”) being released around the same time makes it even more difficult for a movie like “Defiance” to stand out, but what ultimately hurts the film more than any of these things is that such an exceptional story could be conducted so ordinarily.
The year is 1941 and Hitler is at the height of his power. When Jews weren’t being shot on the streets, they were being taken to concentration camps to literally work themselves to death. Some are lucky enough to get away, and after their parents are murdered by Russian soldiers working with the Nazis, the Bielski brothers – Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay) – seek refuge in the woods where they plan to hide out until the war is over. Before long, the brothers have assembled a colony of Jewish runaways, taking it upon themselves to not only protect them, but provide for them as well. When the two oldest brothers butt heads over leadership of the camp, however, Zus joins the Russian army, while Tuvia is left to deal with a myriad of problems including disease, mutiny, and the constant threat of the Nazis.
Based on the book of the same name by Nechama Tec, it’s incredible to think that the story behind “Defiance” wasn’t published until 1993. For all intents and purposes, the Bielski Otriad was the closest thing to the Holocaust's own Underground Railroad, and though they lost several people along the way, they also ended up saving the lives of roughly 1,200 Jews. So why doesn’t the movie feel as important as it should? Frankly, because Zwick presents it like every other war movie ever made. The events that unfold are so by-the-numbers that it’s hard to imagine any of it actually happened, which sort of defeats the purpose of the film.
Zwick has a tendency to let his movies take as long as necessary to develop, but not nearly enough happens throughout the film’s 137-minute runtime to warrant such a carefree attitude. It’s nice to see that he’s refrained from using flashbacks, since a less experienced director would have relied on that kind of lazy storytelling device, but he also doesn’t take a single risk with the way the information is presented. It's all laid out like a recipe for the perfect war movie (Step 1: Create discord between the characters. Step 2: Give the hero a love interest. Step 3: End in a climactic battle where the good guys win), and as a result, it comes off a little stiff.
"Defiance" is far from a terrible film, but when you're dealing with a story about World War II (let alone one that involves the Jews actually fighting back), you tend to expect something a little more memorable. “Defiance,” on the other hand, is completely forgettable, and though it features some great performances from stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, it will only make you anticipate the release of Quentin Tarantino’s own Jews-versus-Nazis war movie, “Inglorious Basterds,” even more. At least we know that film will be memorable, for better or for worse.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Credit goes to the makers of “Defiance” for not cramming as many Bielski brothers documentaries onto the Blu-ray as they could find, because that would have made for some serious overkill. Instead, Paramount has put together a decent collection of extras including an audio commentary with director Edward Zwick, the comically titled “Defiance: Return to the Forest” (which sounds more like a direct-to-DVD sequel than a making-of featurette), and a brief look at recording the score with James Newton Howard. The best of the bunch, however, are a series of interviews with the children and grandchildren of the Bielskis, appropriately titled “Children of the Otraid,” and a photo montage of the remaining survivors shot by Zwick himself.