Edward Zwick’s film directing career represents a frustrating exercise in coming up short on intriguing dramatic premises in projects loaded with talent. After finding smashing early success with Glory, in films such as Blood Diamond, The Siege, Courage Under Fire, and Legends of the Fall, Zwick has shown a frustrating tendency to take fresh dramatic concepts supported by talented casts and turn them into so-so pictures whose flirtations with excellence only emphasize the potential dribbled away. Unfortunately, Zwick’s streak continues with Defiance, an adaptation of Nechama Tec’s book about a band of Jewish refugees-cum-freedom fighters in World War II Belorussia.
Zwick’s minor failure with Defiance is all the more exasperating because the tale covers potentially exciting ground hardly trodden by artistic feet: an instance during the Holocaust where Jews formed a pocket of armed resistance. There are few aspects of history better documented in dramatic film than the horrific persecution and genocide of European and Slavic Jews, but damn few examples exist depicting Jews taking up arms against their persecutors (a dearth earnestly discussed in Knocked Up), and Zwick had a real opportunity to do something quite rare in Hollywood: take the original and make it transcendental.
As Defiance begins, a series of faux-vintage newsreel clips of Nazis battering and killing rounded-up Jews morphs into the slaughter of Jews in a Belorussian village in the path of the Germans’ eastern campaign in 1941. Among the dead are the family of the four Bielski brothers, eldest Tuvia (Daniel Craig), second eldest Zus (Liev Schreiber), adolescent Asael (Jamie Bell), and child Aron (George McKay), who were away from their farm at the time of the attack. Initially separated from each other, they reunite in the deep forest nearby and inadvertently begin collecting stray survivors from the surrounding villages. As the band of villagers grows too numerous to flee quickly, the Bielskis, in particular Tuvia, assume leadership of the group and establish a forest camp.
Tensions quickly mount between Tuvia, who wants to gather and care for as many refugees as possible, and Zus, who wants to stay unencumbered in order to fight the Germans and exact retribution on a local collaborator who murdered the brothers’ father. Tuvia’s and Zus’s agendas coincide for a time, as killing German soldiers is the most expedient way to accumulate weapons and steal food. Zus soon becomes dissatisfied with Tuvia’s leadership, however, and departs with other able-bodied men to join up with partisans assisting the Russian Red Army against the Wehrmacht.
In the meantime, Tuvia and his other brothers continue to build a community in the wilds of the forest, designating regular “food mission” teams, building shelters, and establishing social rituals, such as encouraging his people to pair off in “forest” marriages in the absence of their all-too-likely-dead spouses. After a daring raid on a threatened Jewish ghetto in a nearby city, the Bielski camp grows to hundreds in number. As winter comes, however, the stability of the community is threatened by hunger and disease, and Tuvia’s ability to control his growing flock comes into question. Eventually the Germans become determined to root them out, and the colony is forced to flee or perish.
Defiance gets enough things right that it’s maddening how close it is to being a good movie. Through the early stages of the Bielskis’ resistance movement, the film honestly examines the haphazard way that escapees become partisans, living through their mistakes through sheer luck and learning to refrain from revenge for survival’s sake and ply the gratitude of the local populace living under the boot of oppression. As Tuvia and Zus first begin their campaign with an ambush on a German officers’ car, they spend too much time exulting in their new machine guns and not nearly enough time getting the hell off the road, and the lethal consequences of their naïveté as soldiers feels real and unforced. As their movement matures, the film refrains from sanctifying the survivors and refugees out of their avarice or human instincts, as when the food gathering crews try to elevate themselves above the other refugees by seizing larger portions from the meager stores available, with violent results.
Throughout the film, the cinematography and editing are often spectacular, haunting and beautiful in the use of light, dark, and cold to illuminate the hardship and hope of civilians turned into scrabbling nomads. A scene in which a Bielski brother marries another survivor, with a makeshift wedding canopy shielding the couple from the softly falling snow blanketing the congregation, is breathtaking in its beautiful depiction of the flickering candle of human poetry rallying and railing against the freezing black wind of human nature. The intercutting of this scene with the contrasting action of Zus’s partisans attacking a German convoy yields one of the most striking sequences in 2008 cinema, a segment lesser than but worthy of comparison to the christening scene in The Godfather.
Schreiber also is a highlight, and true to his restrained screen persona and subtle talent, he underplays Tuvia’s competitive brother, who has a number of unsympathetic moments early in the film, building up capital that he cashes in later in situations that could easily fall into campy melodrama. A relatively underused commodity in dramatic films, Schreiber certainly looks the part and doesn’t give a false moment despite the “pretentious serious actor” label stenciled all over his role.
The shortcomings of the film are many, however, and it is hard to believe that Flick and his team couldn’t see the story unraveling as they staged and shot it. A threshold problem in Defiance, one that any film would have a difficult time surviving, is the dialogue, which ranges from stilted to stiff, overdramatic to over-mannered. None of the big dramatic moments in the film produces a memorable exchange among the characters, though not for lack of trying, and Daniel Craig typically finds himself on the short end of these attempts. At one point, Tuvia is asked by a sympathetic farmer providing supplies, “Why is it so fucking hard to be friends with a Jew?” Tuvia responds, “Try being one,” which might truly represent the sentiment of Jews tangled in the net of persecution but comes across more like a James Bond quip than something a foraging partisan might say. Likewise, the slash-and-parry between Tuvia and Zus often slides into melodramatic, arched-eye references to unpleasant internecine history, the context of which was never provided to the viewer and therefore doesn’t support the unearned heft of the brother-against-brother archetype.
Daniel Craig’s presence in itself is a constant distraction throughout the film, though not because of his signature 007 role — he’s a good enough actor to overcome that association, as shown in his five seconds of screentime in the otherwise-useless The Golden Compass. The problem is, while I don’t know
many any Slavic Jews, I’m pretty sure Craig is not remotely physically representative of the Belorussian population, an important distinction in ethnically segregated 1940s Europe. The finest acting cannot overcome poor casting, and Craig might as well have been tapped as the lead in a Stevie Wonder biopic as to flash his steely blue eyes and Cliffs-of-Dover Anglo mug over fleeing Eastern European refugees. While I doubt Craig is especially proud of his work here — his patchy accent is to Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood as pressed bologna is to Spam — it’s as much the presence of Daniel Craig that hamstrings the role. He’s about six inches taller than everyone else and wears a leather bomber jacket throughout the movie that looks like it was looted from Michael Caine’s locker in A Bridge Too Far. How about Clive Owen as Ché Guevara? Why not!
Add to these problems the fitful pacing and Whitman-sampler attention to detail, and the film never has a chance to win the audience. Despite the film’s ample girth of 02:17, Zwick packs too many narrative segments into too little time, with the result that few individual scenes feel fully developed, while the overall effort reeks of epic-envy. Although the narrative covers a space of less than one year, the film constantly feels as though we’re rushing along through an Epcot Center ride called “The Jew Heroes of Jew Europe During that One Jew Battle During Jew War II.” Major plot developments with heavy dramatic implications are dealt with in the same 60-second portions as kinetic action scenes, and at least five times I thought, “I really could have used about 90 more seconds of single-camera dialogue right there.”
As a result, events that should feel desperate and hopeless land on annoying and uncomfortable, such as a critical moment when Bielski refugees flee German soldiers by wading through a vast swamp. There’s a great deal of kvetching about how difficult the passage will be, but after two minutes of extraordinarily taxing wading, here they are on the shore. In another series of scenes of Jewish partisans weathering the bitterly harsh Belorussian winter, the chief indicators of suffering are a typhus infection that gives people a nasty cough, along with a couple of frostbitten toes and a lot of grumpy whining.
As I watched Defiance, my primary feeling was regret. Daniel Craig is a first-class action/drama star, and here he was in full-hero mode toting a machine gun and wasting Nazis. I deeply respect Liev Schreiber as an actor, and he delivered a textured, nuanced performance. Epic dramas about World War II can be immensely enjoyable, and this was two hours of passable narrative with decent characters and beautiful imagery. And the whole time, I kept thinking how rarely someone finds an unplowed field and cultivates something unique, and how intensely that wasn’t happening here.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
Defiance / Ted Boynton
Film | January 19, 2009 | Comments ()