Edward Zwick not only does not believe that Jews in the Holocaust went like lambs to the slaughter, he's got James Bond kicking Nazi ass to prove it. Doubling down on the Academy's affections for both World War II drama and Jews in peril, this historic actioner tells the true-life story of the Bielski partisans, a quartet of Jewish brothers in Belarus who rescued more than a thousand of their people by hiding them in the country's deep forests. Led by thoughtful Tuvia (Daniel Craig), macho Zus (the excellent Liev Schreiber) and naïve Asael (Jamie Bell), the self-exiled Jews evade Nazi-collaborating Polish police forces, conduct hit-and-run raids, and build an impromptu society that's forced to wrestle with unique moral and ethical questions. At issue are how to share rations, when to hunt their own, whether infants should be allowed, and even how marriage is defined by a community that might have to drop everything and flee at a moment's notice. It's a fascinating footnote in history that could've made for some provocative cinema. Instead Zwick gives us Red Dawn by way of Schindler's List.
The former thirtysomething creator-turned-film director has made a career of historic and socially provocative stories set in action-flick context. And while Glory, Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai are well-mounted movies that have moments, they were, ultimately, bland. Defiance continues in this middling tradition, focusing on a generically virtuous-but-blemished hero who struggles to "do the right thing" as enemy forces move in. Where it deviates from Zwick's other efforts is in its profound lack of dramatic propulsion. In fits and starts, Defiance struggles to make the personal into the epic and ends up botching both. It's not that the film's moralizing is so earnestly obvious (though it is), it's that its leads are too dull and the story focus is all wrong.
Instead of putting ideas of gritty survival and complex characters at the heart of the story, Zwick and Clayton Frohman's script punctuates its formulaic combat skirmishes with mawkish emoting and barely rousing speeches.
Zwick is smart enough to toss in some interesting details throughout — particularly how the "cultured" women abandon their notions of a desirable mate and seek out the burliest men — but never finds the dramatic or thematic thread to pull everything together. His high-minded ode to Jewish resistance in a biblically arboreal setting hints at a Moses vs. Aaron conflict, but Tuvia and Zus never get beyond the "you don't have the stomach to do what must be done" and "we cannot become like them" arguments. These aren't men defined by what they believe but by what happens to them. And while the charisma of the three leads goes lengths toward covering up the film's more inept exchanges, they can't compensate for a laughably contrived final confrontation. Socially conscious but emotionally simplistic, Defiance lacks the sophistication and intelligence to follow through on Zwick's more interesting instincts.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.