The true(ish) story of the Bielski brothers and their successful attempts to fight back against Nazi persecution and save the lives of over a thousand Jews.
There is a moment in Defiance where Jamie Bell’s character, having followed his elder brother’s lead the entire movie, finally steps up and takes control of the situation. It was at this moment the character development of this movie struck home. Defiance is a war movie but more so it is the story of the Bielski brothers and the individuals they must become to save the lives of their people.
Based on the novel of the same name, Defiance tells the story of the Bielski brothers and their fight to withstand the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people. The elder brothers share different views of how they should move on in this war. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) stays with the ever growing group of escapees to protect them while Zus (Live Schreiber) leaves to fight with the Russian military forces against the common enemy. A third brother, Asael (Jamie Bell), remains behind with Tuvia to help serve the various people in need of help.
The separation of the brothers is displayed in a familiar scene reminiscent of the closing scene from The Godfather. It intercuts the wedding of Asael (representing community and life) with a scene involving Zus and the Russian military gunning down German troupes during an attack. It is not original, but it is shot in a way that brings home the theme of brothers at arms, fighting the same battle, but from different points of view.
This film is aesthetically beautiful, which should not be a surprise as it was directed by Oscar winning director Edward Zwick. He was also the man behind the great Civil War movie Glory, another film presenting unlikely fighters in a seemingly unwinnable situation. The beauty of the scenes is strongly contrasted with the relentless brutality of the story, making it even more striking. He also is able to frame the battle scenes in a manner where you can follow the battle while remaining enthralled in the tension of the scene.
He is aided by three very powerful performances by his lead characters. Daniel Craig is solid as the stoic leader of the resistance and brings pathos to his character as he battles his personal demons. Jamie Bell is also great as the character that must grow throughout the story. When he finally gets his moment to shine, you really believe it thanks to the efforts of the young actor. However, the star of this movie is Live Schreiber, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. His character is the one that must make the ultimate decision to follow his own desire for revenge or stand by his family to protect his own people.
The film is about thirty minutes too long but, as an epic historical piece, it should be expected. During the film we meet all ranks of people – fighters and scholars, women and children, holy men and teachers. The strongest point of the film is making known the Jewish people were not just helpless victims murdered ruthlessly by the Nazis. There were also people from all walks of life who stood up and fought back. By the end of their battle, 1200 Jewish resistance fighters led by the Bielski brothers survived.
There are criticisms that the film made the enemy too faceless, but I feel that is a strong decision. These people cowered in the woods while the enemy surrounded them, preparing to strike out and eliminate them. Since they are the people we are asked to follow, it is a smart decision to only allow us, the audience, see the enemy the same way the people we are asked to sympathize with does. This is not a movie about the little guys beating an evil army. It is about innocent people fighting insurmountable odds against a faceless enemy. There is not one bad guy in this movie. There is a seemingly limitless supply of enemies hunting them down. This movie allows us to share the claustrophobic anxieties of these resistance fighters.
The movie is not entirely based in fact. Much was embellished from the source material to give the film its narrative arc. The fight with the tank that reunited the brothers never happened, but was added for the dramatic resolve. I am not judging this movie based on historical facts. I was not aware of this battle until the movie introduced me to it. However, as a historical war movie about a group of people overcoming the greatest of odds to fight for their survival it works.
The biggest problem with Defiance is the length and editing. For a movie that is over two hours long, much of the first hour seems chopped together and completely random. It is like Zwick was in such a hurry to get to the battle scenes, he forgot to use simple transitions and just jumped from one scene to the next. Zus and Asael hide as their family is killed. The go into hiding and then *bam* Tuvia shows up. Then more people start to show up. Then they decide to get revenge. Then they decide that might not be a good idea. Then more people show up. It is like a million ideas thrown at us one at a time without any kind of flow at all.
There are also questionable shots, such as when Zus and his men charge into a police station for medicine and its all shot in slow motion with light flares and too many trick shots. It is completely out of place in this movie. The tank scene I mentioned above is also shot in a ridiculous manner meant to elicit a reaction from the crowd for this triumphant moment. In a movie that has so many great character scenes, it seems silly to not trust Schreiber and Craig to pull off the scene without Zwick showing off.
I enjoyed the movie, which is rare as I usually don’t care for war movies. However, if Zwick had trimmed about half an hour from the film, eliminated a few of the “moments” from the setup and tightened up his camera work a little bit, it would have been even better. As it is, this is a decent but flawed film.
There is a commentary track with Edward Zwick who delivers an informative, yet extremely boring discussion throughout the movie. There is a pretty good “making of” called Defiance: Return to the Forest that talks to most of the cast and major crew members. It is funny to watch Live Schreiber, who appears to be doing his interview sitting outside in the rain. In Children of the Otriad, the children and grandchildren of the brothers share stories about Zus and Tuvia (Asael died during the war, following the events of this movie). This is a fantastic little feature, as they have some nice stories. There is also a 2-minute still photo gallery (shot by Zwick) of actual survivors.