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October 27th, 2008:
Four brothers in Poland during WWII escape to the forest and join forces with soldiers from the Russian Resistance.What to Expect:
Well, movie fans, it's that time of the year. Oscar-bait time! From now until December 31st, the studios will be hauling out their heavy ammunition to try and nab themselves a gold statuette, some of them resorting to releasing films in limited release at the very last minute just to qualify for Oscar consideration. So far, it's been a pretty slow year for Oscar-worthy films. The biggest buzz yet has been about Heath Ledger's performance in "The Dark Knight
." And honestly, it ain't looking too good for some films that looked to be heavy favorites. Article continues below
," the new film from Clint Eastwood, a director to strike fear into other hopefuls, is getting really terrible reviews, although his other film opening this season, "Gran Turino
," may give him a second shot. Also suffering from bad early buzz are "Blindness
" and "Miracle at St. Anna
." "The Duchess
" seems like a long shot. "Revolutionary Road
" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
" both still seem like viable contenders, but the latter could easily crash and burn, since no one's quite sure what kind of film David Fincher has made. "The Road
" looks to be excellent but may put off voters with its bleakness, biopic "Milk
" could be a fifth-slot placefiller and "Seven Pounds
" may come off with acting nominations and not much else, following in the footsteps of its spiritual predecessor, "The Pursuit of Happyness
." People are excited about the re-teaming of "The Usual Suspects" dream team Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie on "Valkyrie
," but the presence of Tom Cruise, once such an asset but these days such a liability, may sink that ship. So what does that leave us with?
Well, there is strong buzz developing for "Defiance," the new film from writer/director Ed Zwick
, who brought us "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond
" (and "Legends of the Fall," but nobody's perfect). Although this film, like "Valkryie," is set during World War II, the two films could not be more different. "Defiance," based on the book of the same name, tells the true story of the Bielski partisans, a story that the trailer bills as "the greatest story you've never heard." I can't disagree with that; I had never heard it, and it is a pretty amazing story.
In 1941, three Polish brothers, Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bilski, escaped the local Jewish ghetto and fled into the Belarussian forest, where they began attracting many Jewish Poles to join them. They formed a community in the depths of the dense forests, living in underground dugouts, building structures, and working together to form a self-sustaining group that eventually numbered over one thousand men, women and children. From this base, they formed a resistance force against the Nazis, eventually cooperating with similar Soviet partisan groups. The film chronicles the brothers' struggle to save their Jewish community from the occupying German forces and survive in the wilderness.
Sounds like an inspiring tale of triumph over hardship, doesn't it? It might be. But it ought to surprise no one who's ever seen a historical film based on true events that there have been serious challenges to the film's historical accuracy. Sometimes, challenges like this are over minor discrepancies of fact, but these challenges are actually pretty serious. The local Polish community is protesting that the Bielskis were murderers, not heroes, and cites the Bielski partisans' involvement in the Naliboki massacre, a raid on a village of non-Jewish Poles by Soviet partisans in which over 200 men, women and children were executed. Whether or not the Bielskis' group was involved in this massacre seems uncertain, but it is true that the Bielskis had relationships with the Soviet groups, although an attempt to merge the two groups failed, and the Bielskis were allowed to remain self-sufficient.
The fact is that there was a great deal of anti-Semitism in Poland during WWII. Many non-Jewish Poles collaborated, or were rewarded for turning in Jews, even those who worked in the underground Nazi resistance. By the Jewish community, Tuvia Bielski is considered a hero and savior of over 1000 Jews, but to many Poles, he is a traitor to his Polish roots. Bielski family members insist that none of the brothers would have killed innocents and did not take part in the Naliboki massacre. That being said, these men were hardly pacifists. They considered it necessary to their survival to be ruthless, and they could and did kill Nazis, Soviets and Poles alike who threatened their groups' safety. It remains to be seen if the film will sugar-coat the harsh realities of this situation, and their actions in it, or if it will be truthful and risk letting their protagonists seem vicious.
But the time for debating the script's historical accuracy (or the original book's, for that matter) is clearly past. The book is written, the film is made, and any historical event is different from differing viewpoints. So I'll just do what I do when I'm uncertain about the academic bona fides of a film based on true events...I'll pretend it's fiction and try to judge it on its own merits.
Ed Zwick is one of those directors who had made some excellent films, but just doesn't seem to get any love. The films he has directed, written or produced have been nominated for a boatload of Oscars. The actors he has directed have been nominated many times. He himself, however, has never been nominated as a director. His films are often epic and sweeping, but with highly emotional personal stories at their core. This film would seem to be right up his street. Zwick has often written his own screenplays, although he did collaborate on this one with "The Delinquents" scribe Clayton Frohman.
So how about the cast? First we have Daniel Craig
as Tuvia Bielski, whose casting in this film made me chuckle for purely silly reasons. In "Knocked Up
," Seth Rogen's character talks about how Eric Bana in "Munich" was film's first Jewish action hero, and as you may recall, "Munich" also starred...Daniel Craig. So here we have him playing another Jewish action hero, for the second time. Craig is busy with another little franchise you may have heard of about some kind of spy who likes martinis, but he is managing what many of his Bond predecessors have not been able to, which is maintain his cinema presence in roles outside of Bond with this role and previous ones in "The Golden Compass
" and "The Invasion
." He may just be covering all his bets, since his tenure as 007 could have an uncertain future. Although signed for four Bond films, Craig has gone on record saying that his decision to continue may depend upon the performance of "Quantum of Solace
As the other two Bielski brothers, we have Liev Schreiber
and Jamie Bell
. Much of the early acting buzz has centered around Schreiber, although at this early date a lot of that buzz will be studio-generated, so take it with a big honking shaker full of salt. Still, I have to hand it to the casting director for casting three actors who look like they could actually be brothers. After struggling for an identity for some time after his tsunami-like film debut in "Billy Elliott," Jamie Bell is turning into a real up-and-comer in the British film scene, although I'm sure he'd like to turn back time and say "no thanks" to that role in "Jumper
." As for Schreiber, for a guy who got his first big break in "Scream," he has built up a very respectable career for himself, not only as an actor but as a burgeoning writer and director; his "Everything Is Illuminated" was not financially successful, but showed creativity. Being married to no less an acting heavyweight than Naomi Watts can't hurt. Plus he has nerd-cool points for playing Sabretooth in the upcoming "Wolverine
Does "Defiance" have an audience? That depends if they ever decide when to release it. This isn't just about this film, either. The fall film slate has been like a fruit-basket-upset this year. It seems there isn't a late-year release that hasn't had its opening date changed. First Harry Potter
moved to next year, then "Twilight
" shifted to take its old date, then "The Soloist
" (an early Oscar possibility for Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx) was pushed back almost five months to March. Now "The Road" and this film have been shifted back as well, although both are still slated to open before December 31st to quality for Oscar consideration. Some of these release pushbacks are no doubt financially motivated. By shoving films back to 2009, studios can save money on publicity and advertising for this fiscal year and post better end-of-year numbers. This strategy may be penny-wise, pound-foolish if they are sacrificing possible Oscar-nomination box-office bumps in order to save a few million on TV spots. For "Defiance," the ad campaign had already begun when the film was moved, meaning that they'll just have to do it all over again, so if financially based, that decision seems ill-considered. But hey, what do I know? I don't run a studio.
The issue I see is that this film could easily get lost amidst the glut of holiday releases, many of which are vying for the same audience that enjoys Oscar-bait films, historical dramas or World War II films. By holding the film to limited release until January, they may be able to cash in on the post-holiday doldrums and find a good audience, hoping to give it a boost with Oscar talk. This move does put "Defiance" dangerously close to "Valkryie," with which it will definitely compete for audience dollars.In Conclusion:
Given a choice between Tom Cruise and Daniel Craig, I think these days most people would choose Craig, whose box-office draw just gets shinier and shinier. Director Zwick has a history of making epic films that have great mass appeal, even given difficult subject matter ("Glory," for instance), and historical controversy could work for or against "Defiance."Similar Titles: Jakob the Liar
, Blood Diamond