“DEFIANCE” (2008) Review
After watching Edward Zwick’s 2008 World War II film, “DEFIANCE”, I finally began to realize that it does not pay to make assumptions about a movie, based upon a theater trailer. I had made this mistake several times throughout my life and it irks me that I am still capable of making it. I certainly made this mistake when I saw the trailer for “DEFIANCE”, a World War II drama that told the story of the war experiences of four Polish-Jewish brothers who ended up forming a partisan resistance group against the occupying Nazis between 1941 and 1942.
Based upon the book, “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec, “DEFIANCE” centered around the Bielski brothers – Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay – who had escaped their Nazi-occupied of Eastern Poland/West Belarus and joined the Soviet partisans to combat the Nazis. The brothers eventually rescued roughly 1,200 Jews. The film tracked their struggle to evade invading German forces, while still maintaining their mission to save Jewish lives. When I had first learned about this film ten years ago, I had assumed this would be some rousing World War II tale about a brave resistance against the Nazi horde. I really should have known better. I should have taken into account the film’s director – namely Edward Zwick.
The first Zwick film I had ever seen was the 1989 Civil War drama, “GLORY”. In that movie and other movies directed by him, most of the characters are never presented as one-dimensional, black-and-white characters. Shades of gray permeated most, if not all of his characters, including most memorably – Denzel Washington in “GLORY”, Annette Bening in “SIEGE”, Tom Cruise in ”THE LAST SAMURAI” and both Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou in “BLOOD DIAMONDS”. Zwick continued his tradition of presenting ambiguous characters and morally conflicting issues in “DEFIANCE”. Moral ambiguity seemed to be the hallmark in the portrayal of at least two of the Bielski brothers. Both Tuvial and Zus Bielski (Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) are strong-willed and ruthless men, willing to kill anyone who crossed them. And both seemed willing to enact vengeance against anyone have harmed their loved ones. But they had their differences.
Daniel Craig had the job of portraying Tuvial Bielski, the oldest sibling who decides to create a community and a brigade with the Jewish refugees hiding from the Nazis and their Polish allies. His Tuvial seemed a little reluctant to take on this task – at least at first. And he also seemed unsure whether he could be a competent leader. Thanks to Craig’s performance, this insecurity of Tuvial’s seemed to slowly grow more apparent by the movie’s second half. Being the more-than-competent actor that he is, Craig also managed to portray other aspects of Tuvial’s nature – his ruthlessness, tenderness and sardonic sense of humor (which seemed to be apparent in the Bielski family overall). And like any good actor, he does not try to hog the limelight at the expense of his co-stars. Craig created sizzling on-screen chemistry with Schreiber, Bell and the actress who portrayed Tuvial’s future wife, Alexa Davalos.
Liev Schreiber portrayed Zus, the second oldest Bielski brother. And being the charismatic actor that he is, Schreiber did an excellent job of portraying the volatile second brother, Zus. Upon learning the deaths of his wife and child, Schreiber’s Zus seemed determined to exact revenge upon the Nazis for their deaths. Even if it meant walking away from his brothers and joining the Soviet partisans. Another aspect of Zus’ character that Schreiber made so memorable was the intense sibling rivalry he injected into his relationship with Craig’s Tuvial. Unlike his older brother, Zus’s volatile nature made him more inclined to exact revenge against the Nazis and other enemies. Also, Schreiber perfectly brought out Zus’ contempt and dislike toward those Jewish refugees who came from a higher social class than his family’s.
Portraying the third Bielski brother is Jamie Bell, who has become well known over the years, thanks to his roles in “KING KONG” (2005), “JUMPER” (2008) “JANE EYRE” (2011) and especially his starring role in the TV series “TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES”. Bell did an excellent job of portraying the young and slightly naïve Asael, the third Bielski brother who experiences as a partisan with Tuvial enabled him to mature as a fighter and a man. His Asael does not seem to possess his older brothers’ ruthlessness . . . on the surface. But as the refugees struggle to survive their first winter together and evade the Nazis in the movie’s last half hour, Bell brought out Asael’s toughness that had been hidden by a reserved and slightly shy nature.
“DEFIANCE” also included an additional cast that greatly supported the three leads. There were at least three that caught my interest. Alexa Davalos expertly portrayed Lilka Ticktin, an aristocratic Polish Jew, whose delicate looks and quiet personality hid a strong will and warmly supportive nature. Both Mark Feuerstein as the intellectual Isaac Malbin and Allan Corduner as a professor named Shamon Haretz humorously provided comic relief in their never-ending philosophical debates that seemed to elude the less intellectual Bielskis. Sam Spruell gave a very effective performance as the vengeful and resentful Arkady Lubczanski, another refugee who is jealous of the Bielskis’ authority. The rest of the cast featured supporting players and local Lithuanians portraying the refugees. Basically, they did a pretty good job in conveying the refugees’ plight. There were moments when their acting seemed like one, long running cliché. And there were moments – like the sequence featuring their fatal beating of the captured German soldier – in which they seemed very effective.
“DEFIANCE” is not perfect. As I had stated earlier, the supporting and background characters tend to drift into cliché performances sometimes. The movie’s pacing threatened to drag in two places – when the Bielskis first began to gather the refugees that followed them; and later in the film when Tuvial’s camp suffer their first “winter of discontent”. James Newton Howard’s score did not help matters. I found it slow and unoriginal and it threatened to bog down the film in certain scenes.
But the movie definitely had its moments – including the sequence featuring the lynching of the German soldier. It was one of many that accentuated the gray and complex nature of “DEFIANCE”. On one hand, the audience could not help but empathize with the refugees’ anger at what the German soldier represented – the deaths of their loved ones and the dark turn their lives had taken. On the other hand, the entire sequence struck me as ugly and dark. Mob violence at its worse. Even Asael (Bell) seemed disgusted by the refugees’ lynching of the soldier . . . and Tuvial’s failure to stop them. Another ambiguous scene centered around one of the refugees – a rogue soldier of Tuvial’s brigade named Arkady Lubczanski – who tries to lead a rebellion against an ill Tuvial during a food shortage. Arkady is portrayed as an unpleasant man who lusts after Asael’s bride and believes that he and his fellow soldiers in the brigade are entitled to more food than the refugees. Tuvial ends the rebellion by killing Arkady. Granted, Arkady had not harmed anyone – aside from giving Asael a shiner. On the other hand, his practice of hoarding the food could have ended with death by starvation for most of the refugees. Had Tuvial been right to commit murder? Apparently, the refugees did not seem so. They did not protest against his act of murder.
This is what Edward Zwick is all about. This is why I am a fan of many of his movies. Superficially, he presents his story in a black-and-white situation. The Nazis, their Polish allies, anti-Semitic Soviet troops and unpleasant refugees like Arkady are presented superficially as one-note villains. Yet, the people who oppose them – the Bielski brothers, their loved ones, their Polish and Soviet allies and the refugees – turn out not to be as “good” or perfect as many would believe. In Ed Zwick’s movies, the world is not as black and white as we might believe . . . or wish it would be.