Edward Zwick's Defiance is inspired by the true story of the Bielski brothers, Polish siblings who led a partisan resistance to the Nazis and are credited with saving about 1200 Jews. There are always a few movies whose studios decide the rush of awards season is too great an obstacle to the effort to find an audience. Defiance joined The Road and The Soloist as one of the most high-profile 2008 releases to move their date; the film opened December 31st to barely qualify for this year's Oscar nominations (earning only a nomination for Original Score) and bowed in January to the rest of the country.
My question is, why? Defiance is a far superior effort to The Reader both in message and execution and genuinely stirring, albeit in some fairly conventional ways. For those unfamiliar with the film's historical basis, let's just say that a key scene near the end is roughly analogous to the moment in Star Wars where Han Solo decides to return to help destroy the Death Star. You can see it coming, but that doesn't make it any less powerful. Zwick benefits enormously from the performances of his two leading men. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) becomes the leader of the group, organizing work details and patrols and resisting those who would seek vengeance on collaborators with the Nazis. I'm not sure how Jewish I think Craig looks, but it doesn't matter because he spends almost the entire film bruised and covered in dirt. The Germans are the enemy, but the central conflict in Defiance is between Tuvia and his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber). While Tuvia focuses on maintaining the values that the community had before the war Zus (who joins a Russian Army unit) concerns himself with fighting back. I've never thought of Schreiber as an action hero, but he seems entirely comfortable in the role and performs with a surprising physicality (nothing like that Wolverine trailer, but still). Craig tamps down the personality we've come to love in the James Bond movies, and never lets us forget that underneath Tuvia's authoritarian veneer he is of course frightened out of his mind. The degree to which Tuvia becomes willing to do what needs to be done as Defiance proceeds is delineated in clean, sharp beats.
Zwick and his cowriter Clayton Frohman don't ignore the class divisions in the camp or the treatment of women, many of whom wound up becoming "forest wives" to the men whose spouses were missing or dead. Zus leaves the camp because he doesn't want to die protecting Jews from urban ghettos who look down on him and later a rebellion by some of the fighters must be put down at the point of Tuvia's gun. The women don't have much to do, but the movie is the better for the high spirits of Iben Hjejle, Alexa Davalos, and the great Mia Wasikowska (whom I blogged about here) from HBO's In Treatment. The gifted supporting cast also includes Mark Feuerstein (nice to see him not playing a bland urbanite), Allan Corduner, and Mark Margolis in one scene as a ghetto elder afraid to ally with Tuvia. In perhaps the boldest scene (which makes troubling viewing in light of accusations about the Bielski group's real-life activities), Tuvia leaves a captured German soldier to the brutality of the Jewish mob. That's a scene Spielberg would have never filmed, and it's the anger coursing through the displaced warriors that makes Defiance resonate. Tired of seeing the victims of Nazi oppression portrayed as impossibly noble victims or, you know, Roberto Benigni? Edward Zwick isn't afraid to show Jews doing things that are often to hard to watch but also fiercely human.