Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.22.09


Into the Woods
A true story gets the Hollywood treatment
by Molly Templeton

DEFIANCE: Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick, based on the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec. Cinematography, Eduardo Serra. Music, James Newton Howard. Starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner and Mark Feuerstein. Paramount Vantage, 2008. R. 137 minutes.

Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber in Defiance

While talking to a filmgoing friend recently, I bemoaned a certain kind of movie: the kind that looks just fine on the surface — it’s not terribly shot, nor terribly acted; there’s more to the screenplay than clichés and clunkers — but it is nonetheless totally unimpressive. She laughed and said, “And you think of all the hard work going into them — when they might as well have made a little brown boring cake.” It’s done, sure; it’s palatable. But the sum is not quite the whole of its parts.

When the little brown cake movie is a film like Defiance, the aftertaste is fairly sour. Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) directs (and co-wrote) the based-on-a-true-story film about the Bielski brothers, who pulled off an undeniably impressive feat during WWII: They built a camp in the woods of Belarus and, over the years, took in hundreds of Jewish refugees, nearly all of whom survived until the area was liberated. The Bielskis, Defiance makes clear, were handy, self-sufficient folks, people with a slightly dicey past used to using their hands. The refugees came from all walks of life: nurses, watchmakers, intellectuals (the latters’ use was in some question in the forest, but all were taken in). It’s easy to see how Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell; a fourth, younger brother is a very minor character) could sustain themselves in the woods. It’s harder to see how they came to the decision to work so hard to sustain others. Like Valkyrie, Defiance presents us with men who clearly did the right thing while failing to ask how — how, in this place and at this horrible time — they found the strength and resolve to do so. 

Defiance does raise the occasional question, but mostly the film trots along, hitting every expected beat: conflict within and without, discovery, flight, sacrifice, resettlement, relationships, danger, battles small and large, won and lost. The occasional quippy dialogue or familiar moment of leadership on display weakens the reality of the story, making it into a strangely unaffecting fable of survival wrapped around a kernel of conflict between Zus and Tuvia. Tuvia, the idealist camp leader, is more concerned with saving as many people as possible; Zus, the angry vengeance-seeker, joins up with Russian forces to kill Nazis. Perhaps Defiance would like us to be asking ourselves which of these positions we feel is better, and whether this question is applicable today. But stock storytelling waters down the ideas, muffling the impact. Instead of a story about finding the strength to resist, it’s a story about how a false dichotomy — Zus’ ideas or Tuvia’s — is resolved when it becomes clear that both are right, in their own way. Both kinds of resolve are necessary for the Bielskis to keep the refugees alive.

Defiance drags when it ought to race and hurries when it ought to slow down to consider how best to serve the story it’s telling. At the heart of Defiance is a story about how people can survive under the most incredible, awful conditions. But Zwick gives us heroes and horrors in a gorgeous woodland setting where even the hardest work doesn’t look hard and the leaders all find beautiful “forest wives” among the rescued. (Sometimes it gets cold, also.) Somewhere, lost under the posturing and pat plot points, something in Defiance probably reflects what actually happened. But not even the combined intensity of Craig and Schreiber can transform Defiance from a little brown boring cake into a film that might do justice to the incredible story it hopes to tell.