Daniel Craig may be best known as the current James Bond, but he has a flourishing sideline as the movies’ most badass Jew. The actor has made two 007 films and an equal number in which he plays historical figures who took up arms against persecutors of the chosen ones.
First there was his role as a Mossad operative on a mission to track down and terminate perpetrators of the 1972 Olympic massacre in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Now, in his latest, Craig plays Tuvia, the eldest of the four Bielski brothers. History has all but forgotten them, even though they organized a brigade of Jewish resistance fighters in 1941 and created a Belarussian forest refuge for 1200 men, women and children fleeing the Holocaust — roughly the same number saved by Oskar Schindler.
So why is Edward (Blood Diamond) Zwick’s WWII drama generating zero Schindler’s List-style award-season buzz, despite its first-rate cast and basis in heartwrenching fact? I think it comes down to a couple of shortcomings: Zwick’s stilted, inert direction and the frequently forced and cornball screenplay he co-wrote with Clay Frohman, based on the acclaimed 1993 account by Holocaust scholar Nechama Tec.
Among the blitz of recent film releases set in or involving the Second World War, including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Valkyrie, The Reader, Good and Adam Resurrected, Defiance may rank against all odds as the least powerful or memorable. It tells a story never before told on screen and manages somehow to make it feel old hat.
The other Bielski brothers are Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay). Zus is closest in age to Tuvia and least similar in temperament. When their parents are murdered by Nazis, they grab a rifle and a few supplies and make camp deep in the woods adjacent to their village.
Before long, friends, neighbors and total strangers from near and far begin to trickle in, drawn by rumors of the Bielskis’ plan to establish a hidden settlement and arm a band of partisans to defend it. Zus argues that their duty lies in hooking up with Soviet troops and taking part in raids against the German forces. His mantra: “Blood for blood.” Tuvia sees his mission as creating “the one place in all of Belarussia where a Jew can be free.” “Our revenge,” he declares, “is to live.”
Eventually the two go their separate ways, and Defiance effectively divides, amoeba-like, into two distinct films. On the one hand, there’s a fairly routine action saga with Schreiber at its center. Given Zwick’s exemplary track record as a choreographer of military confrontation in pictures such as Glory and The Last Samurai, this aspect of the movie has a surprisingly lackluster quality. The battle sequences possess a look and feel one might describe as Saving Private Ryan Lite.
And then there’s the movie promised by the TV ads and trailer, the story of hundreds of terrified outcasts coming together to create a microcosm of society in the middle of the Polish woods. The film’s most fascinating historical elements are, for the most part, to be found here. Craig’s character devises a system for smuggling in food from sympathetic farmers. He forms and trains a small army. He singlehandedly dictates the community’s governing rules — everyone must work, food and supplies are shared equally, and no pregnancies are permitted (though men are allowed to take “forest wives”). At one point, the group not only survives a brutal winter, but miraculously constructs housing, a school, a nursery and a hospital from the materials at hand.
So why isn’t Defiance more inspiring? How is it possible for a movie based on such an amazing chapter in history to plod, and sometimes even to come off as an overly earnest Hallmark production? Zwick, as I say, displays jawdroppingly counterproductive instincts when it comes to bringing the story to life. We never see the school, nursery or hospital, for example; we merely read about them in a crawl near the film’s end credits. It doesn’t help that the drama’s principal figures rarely register as more than one-dimensional types. Zus is a hothead; Tuvia a warrior-saint-Moses in a leather jacket who issues commandments astride a white horse.
The secondary characters are even more generic. An aged schoolteacher quotes from the Talmud. A bespectacled young intellectual fumbles with his hammer and says ultra-clunky stuff like “At least Descartes allowed for the subjective nature of existence.” Miscellaneous beautiful women gaze adoringly at the Bielskis, while masses straight out of Central Casting huddle in overcoats before a communal fire.
The filmmaker even makes a clumsy stab at Coppola-style juxtaposition with a sequence that intercuts Zus and comrades ambushing a Nazi unit with little brother Asael back in the woods taking a bride. I know the sight of hunted people holding hands and dancing in a great life-affirming circle as digital snowflakes swirl is supposed to be uplifting, but given the hokey way Zwick stages it, the scene leaves you feeling like you just sat through a community theater production of Fiddler.
Based on its cast, its director and its revelatory source material, I not only wanted to like this movie, I fully expected to. I had every reason to anticipate being drawn in, carried away, astonished and profoundly moved. The picture connects on far fewer levels than it should, however, and given its built-in drama, suspense and pathos, the only thing that result defies is reason.