Defiance is the kind of film in which a director takes on an important and emotionally overwhelming story and uses it to coast through some unforgivably lazy filmmaking, just as Stefan Ruzowitzky did earlier this year with The Counterfeiters. Director Edward Zwick has made a career out of these prestigious pageants, mostly tales of other cultures as told through the eyes of a white, male hero: Glory (1989), The Last Samurai (2003) and Blood Diamond (2006). But while those films at least had a professional sheen, Defiance doesn’t even look good. Perhaps this is Zwick’s version of being “gritty”?
Tuvia (Craig), Zus (Schreiber) and Asael (Bell) are three brothers of Russian-Jewish heritage. When World War II and Nazi threats loom, they escape into the woods of Belarus. Before long they have built up a community of refugees, constructing shelters, training and going on food raids, with Tuvia naturally assuming the role of leader. Eventually the two older brothers quarrel, and the hotheaded Zus leaves for the more secure company and more immediate violence of the nearby Russian army. There are many daring battles and a few scenes of high drama as the outcasts try to survive a frigid Russian winter. But Zwick bungles everything. His weighty pacing moves at a turgid trudge, with no sense of highs or lows. And he fails to use the essence of the woods for any kind of mood; it’s merely a series of backdrops.
Moreover, the lead actors—who mostly speak accented English—are unable to fully grasp or shape their ever-fluctuating characters, with no help from the film’s dreadful dialogue. The lesser characters behave like glorified extras, each trying to contribute their own bits of business to get their faces on camera, but none ever coming to life. (Very often, characters talk about other characters by name, as if we know any of these people well enough to know what their names are.) Much of the rest of the film unfolds in expository dialogue or dumb coincidences. And on and on it goes. The question is whether Zwick has honored his subjects by bringing their story to the public eye, or has dishonored them by doing it so poorly. For a much better story of heroic Jews under pressure, check out Steven Spielberg’s 2005 Munich.