Starring: Daniel Craig, Liv Schreiber, Jamie Bell
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: Clayton Frohman si Edward Zwick
Rating : R for violence and language
Edward Zwick’s specialty as a Hollywood director are epic films. Indeed he has a keen eye when it comes to that particular brand of cinema. His might not be the most original films ever ( like his “Last Samurai” being like “Dancing with Wolves” but with samurai instead of indians ), but they deliver. It’s basic, slightly exploitive, professional cinema, preying on emotion and relying on cliches.
One such film is “Defiance”, based on a true untold story from the Second World War, involving a group of approximatively 1000 eastern-european jews that escaped the nazi extermination machine by forming a small community in the woods, where they fought to survive against both the harshness of nature and the cruelty of man. The underground movement was led by the Bielski brothers : Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liv Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell), who had lost their own families so they decide to make a stand. At first they dish out some old fashioned revenge, but as the group grew in numbers, among them women and children, they form their own settlement deep in the woods, to keep them safe from the war. Tuvia and Zus have separate views on the management of the small community, and so Zus runs off and joins the local partisan movement, while Tuvia stays on as leader of the camp. The film’s timeline covers a period of time from the autumn of 1941 to spring, 1942. The plot contains crucial points like the settlers being forced to relocate after being discovered, characters obtaining food any way they can, chilling blue hued winter scenes, mutiny, sibling rivalry, romance in the face of despair, and it all concludes in good ol’ Hollywood fashion with a run-for-your-lives finale which puts the survivors face to face with the nazi army.
The film deserves recognition for telling a story I don’t recall ever hearing about. It deserves, however, a good bashing for being a less than involving film than the story deserves. Originality might not be Zwick’s forte, but there’s no excuse for all the cliches in there, with characters and routines that are way too familiar from other standard Hollywood epics. If it wouldn’t have been such an interesting story to tell, there would have been little worth watching here except for Liv Schreiber’s excellent supporting part, and the beautiful score by James Newton Howard (nominated for an Oscar this year). It’s catastrophic for the dramatic impact of a film when its most intense moments are contained in mindless action scenes, especially if it yearns for more. But really, that’s where the film picks up the pace, during its final confrontation. The rest is just lifeless storytelling, carried along by good actors, who don’t even get decent dialogue. A lot of intriguing ideas, like the limits a human being crosses while trying to survive, and the weird relationships that arise from such a departure from civilization are touched upon, briefly but very family-friendly despite the R rating for language and violence. It tries to steer clear of possible controversial issues, because the subject is too sensitive, being about an unseen side of the Holocaust. Spielberg went all the way with “Munich”, but Zwick plays it safe. It never really explores too deep into the dark nature of man, choosing to rely on heavy-handed melodrama for effect. Zwick usually goes for the Oscar-bait and he often brings home a little something. It was a big surprise, for example, when “Blood Diamond” (with a similar mix of serious politics and shallow action) brought home 5 nominations, including two for leading and supporting actor. This one however is not even close to generating the same buzz no matter how the marketing machine pitches it, because Zwick simply can’t give the story the epic strength it deserves.
I don’t want it to seem like I’m a Zwick hater. Not at all. I love most of his films, even “Legends of the Fall”. But “Defiance” simply doesn’t cut it. It lacks that certain quality that would make it a must-see. It could be interesting to see once, for the unique history lesson, but in terms of cinematic achievement it’s a wasted opportunity.