Defiance (2008)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/16/09 00:00:00

"How Do You Say "WOLVERINES!" In Hebrew?"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

If lofty ambitions, impeccable taste and noble intentions were all that was necessary to become a great filmmaker, then Edward Zwick would surely make the shortlist of the top auteurs of our time. Throughout his career, he has largely chosen to avoid making empty-headed blockbusters or redundant retreads in order to tackle more gripping and thought-provoking subject matter ranging from historical epics like “Glory” and “The Last Samurai” to such torn-from-the-headlines dramas as his groundbreaking 1983 TV movie “Special Bulletin,” “Courage Under Fire,” “The Siege” and “Blood Diamond.” He is respected enough in the artistic community to lure top actors into his projects and savvy enough to hire enormously talented performers before they have had their major breakthroughs--he guided Denzel Washington to his first Oscar-winning performance in “Glory” and gave Matt Damon one of his first significant role in “Courage Under Fire.” These are qualities that are in short supply these days and which should be applauded, I suppose, but the trouble with Zwick is that while he may seem like the ideal film director on paper and in theory, he just isn’t very good at the job in practice. He makes earnest and well-meaning works that unfortunately have no life or energy to them whatsoever and which basically sit heavily on your lap for a couple of hours reminding viewers of their seriousness and nobility instead of doing something nutty like attempting to actually engage them on a dramatic level.

In essence, Zwick is pretty much the contemporary version of Stanley Kramer, a filmmaker who used to do films on subjects that were so important and profound--he tackled race relations in “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” the Holocaust in “Judgement at Nuremberg,” the debate over teaching evolution in “Inherit the Wind” and nuclear annihilation in “On the Beach”--that they would be hailed as masterpieces by many who praised them for the stories that they told rather than for the aggressively dull and lifeless ways in which he told them. (Ironically, both Kramer and Zwick have proven to be most valuable as the producers of the films of other directors--Kramer was behind “The Men,” “The Wild One” and the immortal “The 5000 Fingers of Doctor T.” while Zwick helped bring “Shakespeare in Love” and “Traffic” to the big screen.) With his latest work, “Defiance,” Zwick has once again brought together an intriguing premise and a strong and compelling group of actors and has somehow managed to transform the entire thing into something that is relentlessly flat and banal throughout. It never teeters over into outright awfulness (though it comes close at a few points) but the dull TV movie-style execution of the potentially powerful material employed by Zwick is, in a way, even worse and more frustrating than if it had simply been an out-and-out bust.

The film stars Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, a Jewish smuggler who returns to his hometown in Poland in 1941 only to discover that the Nazis, in collaboration with some locals, have killed many of the townspeople including many members of his family. However, his brothers--hot-headed Zus and the much younger Asael (Jamie Bell)--managed to survive the assault and they set up camp for themselves in the woods of Belarus. When Tuvia discovers that the local police chief was responsible for the murder of his father, he sneaks off in the middle of the night to get vengeance by killing the man and his family in cold blood. Afterwards, he has no interest in carrying out any other revenge missions but Zus wants to continue by wiping out the various local collaborators who so casually sold out their neighbors. Tuvia reluctantly agrees and while going out on these missions, they wind up taking out a number of Nazis as well and wind up gathering additional weapons as a result. At the same time, numerous fellow refugees happen upon their camp and while Zus insists that there is no way that they have neither the room nor the resources to help them, Tuvia insists on taking them in and later on, he and Zus lead a raid on a local ghetto set for liquidation that swells their ranks even further.

As time passes and the number of refugees grows even further, tensions begin to set in between Tuvia and Zus--the former refuses to turn anyone away and feels that their mere existence is the best possible revenge against those who tried to destroy them while the latter prefers a more direct approach to dealing with their enemies and doubts his brother’s ability to properly lead their ever-expanding group. Eventually, Zus leaves the group and falls in with a group of partisans fighting against the Nazi under the Russian flag and discovers that Russian attitudes towards the Jews aren’t that far removed from those held by the Germans. As for Tuvia, he tries to instill the people that he has been charged with helping with a sense of purpose and struggles to combat infighting while training them to defend themselves. Despite the solace provided by refugee cutie Lilka (Alexa Davalos), the combination of malnourishment, illness, harsh winter weather the separation from Zus and the constant threat of danger weigh heavily upon him. At this point, of course, Tuvia learns that the Nazis have figured out where the camp is and he is forced to lead his people through the countryside to safety with their oppressors hot on their heels.

There have, of course, been countless films about the Holocaust in recent years and for the most part, they have dealt almost exclusively with the victimization of their characters at the hands of their oppressors. “Defiance,” on the other hand, is a Holocaust story that is more interested in showing its characters fighting back instead of suffering (although there is enough of that to go around here as well) and the sheer unusualness of such an approach is enough to grab one’s interest for a few minutes. Unfortunately, while one can applaud Zwick’s ambitions regarding the project--half “Schindler’s List” and half “Red Dawn”--the way he handles the material is so draggy and dully earnest in tone that the proceedings pretty much grind to a halt early on. The screenplay from Zwick and co-writer Clayton Frohman never supplies the kind of dramatic impact required for a film like this to work--this has got to be one of the most genteel and restrained films about revenge to come along in a long time. There are plenty of moments of suffering and sacrifice, of course, but none of them convey the sense of real anger or tragedy that a film of this type needs to feed off of in order to succeed. Instead, we get the same distracting and barely believable crap that we have seen in countless other war movies over the years--earnestly inspirational speeches (including one delivered from atop a white steed), one-note supporting characters who have been given one bit of business to play throughout (one repeatedly reminds us that he is an intellectual while the adorably cranky old man of the group becomes ill and winds up enacting the kind of overextended death scene that even Camille might have found to be a little too much), fabulous looking babes who someone manage to look salon-perfect even after months in the woods and a climax in which any remaining material of a thoughtful nature is shoved out of the way to make room for a big action climax that is never quite as spectacular as it wants to be.

There are some good elements on display in “Defiance”--the actors are pretty good for the most part, especially Craig and Schreiber, and Eduardo Serra’s cinematography never fails to impress. The problem, though, is that Edward Zwick was apparently so consumed with the notion of making a great and profound film out of this material that he neglected to make a good one. What this movie needed, I think, is a director more interested in making a movie than in trying to make an artistic statement and who could have better balanced the kinetic action and thrills with the more dramatic and noble-minded moments--imagine what might have resulted if John Milius, the guy who actually made “Red Dawn” and a scholar of military campaigns, might have done with the material. Zwick tries but he never quite manages to conjure up the dramatic fire that “Defiance” needs to succeed and as a result, most people watching the narratively inert results will find themselves daydreaming about the film that it should have been instead of focusing on the one unspooling before their eyes.

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