Paramount // 2008 // 136 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 2nd, 2009
Based on the incredible true story.
"Nothing is impossible, what we have all done is impossible."
The Second World War has just begun, and Jews are being persecuted by Germans soldiers all across Eastern Europe. Jews everywhere are hiding, but the Bielski brothers are sick and tired of having to run away in fear. They believe that the Jews should not simply run from the Germans, but that they should fight back. Taking a group of recruits into the forest, brothers Zus (Liev Schrieber, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Tuvia (Daniel Craig, Layer Cake), and Asael (Jamie Bell, Jumper) lead an assault on Nazi Germany. They may not be able to win the war on their own, but they can certainly make life frightening and dangerous for German soldiers who come within range of their camp. Will these defiant warriors survive?
2008 produced no less than four major English-language films focusing on the events of World War II. Curiously, three of these were from the perspective of Germans. Bryan Singer's Valkyrie offered the story of Nazi soldiers attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The Reader told the story of a German prison camp guard conducting a passionate affair with a teenage boy. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas gave viewers a look at the holocaust from the perspective of a young German boy. All of these are worthy films that deserve to be seen. Curiously, the one film that chose to offer a story from the perspective of those being persecuted by the Nazis is the least effective of the bunch.
Defiance is a film that seems just about right on paper, but somehow it doesn't quite translate into a successful cinematic outing. It was directed by Edward Zwick, a reasonably talented man who is returning to very familiar territory here. His Glory beautifully told the story of a man leading a group of oppressed people into an impossibly challenging battle. The Last Samurai also told the story of a man leading a group of oppressed people into an impossibly challenging battle. Now Defiance tells the story of...well, you guessed it. Despite the fact that Defiance concentrates on one of the more emotionally devastating chapters in recent world history, it lacks the resonance of the two aforementioned films, going through the motions of crafting an emotionally-charged historical drama in a lackluster and somewhat unimaginative manner.
Part of the problem here is that the film takes our feelings about the Holocaust for granted. Now, please don't get me wrong, I am not for a moment suggesting that any sane viewer would ever side with anyone other than the Jewish people in this particular story. Even so, the screenplay turns the Nazis into nameless and faceless villains. It's very easy to uses Nazis as villains in a film. After all, everybody hates Nazis. There is no need to explain them or develop them or give us a specific reason to despise them. They're Nazis and everyone wants to see Nazis die. I think that the effort should be put in nonetheless. We witness the brothers at the center of the film become very comfortable with the idea of killing people. At first, Tuvia is very hesitant about the idea of going on the attack. "We should not become like them," he says. "No," replies Zus, "But at least we can kill like them." Yet with villains that seem so vague and poorly defined in this particular film, it's slightly difficult to connect emotionally with their plan (if not intellectually).
The characters are another weak point. Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber are both excellent actors, but their roles simply aren't terribly interesting. They are gruff and violent men who are determined to help their people survive in the midst of devastating circumstances. They spend a large portion of their time getting into fights with each other. The film could have done with one or two less scenes of brotherly bickering, particularly considering the 136-minute runtime. Craig and Jamie Bell are both saddled with a good deal of sentimental dialogue that sounds more like Oscar clip material than anything else. Zwick has never been one to embrace subtlety, but I could only shake my head at the scene in which Craig delivers an inspirational speech to the people from the back of a noble white horse. Bell shares a romance with a young woman named Chaya (Mia Wasikowska, In Treatment). This is handled with so much sweetness that one can only feel assured that it will end in some sort of tragedy. Jubilant scenes of a wedding celebration spliced together with images of brutal executions conducted by Zus compares unfavorably to the closing sequence of The Godfather.
The DVD receives a decent transfer that nicely conveys the rather muted image here. The level of detail is reasonably satisfactory, and the wintry scenes particularly excel. I found a few of the darker scenes to be a bit too murky, and flesh tones often seem a bit off. Grain is kept to a minimum throughout. The audio gets the job done nicely without ever becoming genuinely exceptional. You might think a war film like this one would be rather aggressive in the audio department, but that really isn't the case. Extras include an engaging commentary with director Ed Zwick (arguably more compelling than the actual film), a rather good making-of featurette entitled "Return to the Forest: The Making of Defiance" (26 minutes), a piece called "Children of the Otriad" (13 minutes) that offers a look at the real-life survivors, a brief photo gallery, and some theatrical trailers. The Blu-ray disc includes an additional featurette about the scoring of the film, which I was disappointed to miss out on.
As you might expect, Zwick and his crew do a tremendous job in terms of the technical details. The film looks very authentic throughout, with well-researched production and costume design playing a strong part in terms of immersing us in the experience. James Newton Howard provides a gentle and sensitive score that makes a stronger emotional connection than anything actually contained into the film. Despite the somewhat weakly-drawn characters, Schrieber and Craig do manage to keep the film engaging throughout due to their basic ability to seem genuine and credible even when saddled with rather limited dialogue. Additionally, there is one scene in the film that I found genuinely startling: a moment in which Tuvia determines to do whatever is necessary to maintain his position of leadership. This brief scene has a raw impact that the rest of the film could use more of.
Though the film is not a complete waste of time, Defiance is a missed opportunity that falls into the "noble misfire" category. Too bad.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Gallery