Decades after the last shot was fired, filmmakers continue to find intriguing narrative passages into WWII. The latest, Edward Zwick
's Defiance, tells the true story of the Bielskis, three Jewish brothers who, in 1941, avoided capture by the Germans and fled to Poland's Lipicanzia Forest.
Willing to help as many fellow exiles as possible, Tuvia (Daniel Craig
), Zus (Liev Schreiber
), and Asael (Jamie Bell
) formed what eventually came to be known as the Otriad, a mobile community that grew to encompass 1,200 Jewish refugees. The Otriad provided food, shelter, safety, and a moderate sense of stability. There were rules and guidelines, which bred harmony and conflict. Relationships were forged, as male and female widows took on "forest" husbands and wives. The toughest challenge -- beyond basic survival --seemed to be maintaining civility in this makeshift civilization.
Over the course of his career, Zwick regularly finds compelling subject matter with difficult emotional conflicts that can sustain noteworthy dramatic performances, and Defiance is no exception. Schreiber and Craig distance themselves from the sturdy ensemble, conveying their courage and conviction as well as their fears and loss. Zwick and Clay Frohman's screenplay doesn't avoid tough questions. Tuvia must ask who is worthy of being saved, and how many individuals can be assisted before it starts endangering the larger community.
Yet, as in his past films, we can actually see Zwick reaching out to push the emotional buttons. He dresses up his drama, and I was turned off by almost every style choice. Like when Craig mounts a white steed to deliver what can only be described as his Braveheart speech on freedom. Or when, in one of the least subtle sequences, a marriage in the Otriad is paralleled with a massacre conducted by Zus and his Russian compatriots. And Zwick commits a cardinal sin -- gratuitous slow-motion cinematography during a vital raid to retrieve medicine from a heavily guarded bunker.
It's strange to say, but Zwick's movies -- from Glory to The Siege to Legends of the Fall -- almost succeed despite him. Defiance carries moving images of unified strength, but the director's obvious flourishes are a distraction. This is a valiant, courageous story of fortitude, which Zwick churns through the Hollywood playbook. Under Zwick's guidance, Defiance is an interesting story, sporadically told in an interesting way.