By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
Over the last thirty years many of Edward Zwick’s films have been met with modest box office numbers and moderate critical praise. And with the notable exception of 1989’s Glory, none of them have become entrenched in the public conscience or by critics at large as objectively “great” films. They are the kind of movies that you may not go to theatres to see, but make a note to put on your Netflix queue.
Many of his films hover on the precipice of greatness, falling just short for one or more reasons. The Last Samurai is a perfect example, featuring well developed characters, solid performances and an unique plot that fell apart in the third act, a victim of Hollywood convention. While his films are not generally box office gold, I credit him with trying to tell unconventional stories within the system that fights anything sure to upset a test market.
Short of the brick sized cell phones and the bloody obvious sight of the World Trade Center in the background, who’d be able to guess that this tale of Terrorism and suspension of Habeas Corpus was made in the 90’s?
Set in the 1940’s in what would become Belarus, it tells the story of the controversial Bielski Partisans. They were a group of Jewish freedom fighters who were as well recognized for saving lives as they were vilified in the region for the part they may or may not have played in their own war crimes (My Google-Fu research has found the claims largely in dispute to this day, but they bear a mention). The film focuses on the brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Zus (Liev Schreiber) Bielski as they struggle with the task of staving off the Nazi threat while attending the needs of the civilians that seek their protection. Early on Zus finds himself more of a mind to fight than to hide, and with a handful of volunteers joins up with communist partisans, leaving Tuvia and Asael to the defense of their forest-bound sanctuary. From here the film documents the trials of all three brothers as they struggle to survive the war.
Like Zwick’s stronger films, Defiance doesn’t tell a story which is black and white. It instead opts for the less traveled road, trying to represent the Partisans as flawed people who don’t always make objectively “right” decisions. The film could easily have attempted to appeal to popular convention and deified the Bielski Brothers.
Indeed the decision to do so would have likely garnered more financial success. I can see why some people may have been turned off of the film based on its marketing, which seemed to place it firmly in the “revenge / action movie” genre. Audiences expecting a simple “good guys fight bad guys and triumph over insurmountable odds” type of movie surely may have been off-put. In their struggle for survival these characters are often make decisions that would be accused of being brutal in other circumstances. Ultimately, the most distinctive feature that separates the Bielskis from the enemy they fight is that, no matter how far they may go, they always take a step back in an attempt to reassess and preserve the precious humanity they hold dear.
The film is also very well shot, the battle sequences never feel claustrophobic or dizzying, unlike so many contemporary war films. The shaky cam is also used to a minimum, which allows you to see all the action, which in turn allows the audience better understand the stakes of each conflict. Much of the cinematography is also gorgeous, highlighting the beauty of the forest in all four seasons, with slight changes in lighting that set the mood for each sequence. Bolstering this is the restrained score by James Newton Howard which never resorts to crude bombast. The score is clearly influenced by its Eastern European setting, employing a great deal of violin (by soloist Joshua Bell) that seems often to be chased by the orchestra in much the same way as the protagonists are pursued throughout the movie.
While the story itself is fairly unconventional by Hollywood standards, there are still some issues which filter through that may have you grabbing for another beer. First off, there is Daniel Craig mounted on a horse Braveheart style delivering an impassioned speech to newly arrived Jews from a nearby Ghetto. And there are one or two other “Oscar Bait” speeches that feel forced into the movie.
Thankfully the movie doesn’t wiggle its ass at you for too long.
That isn’t too major an issue, as an American filmgoer I am used to this cliché. My only other criticism is that, while the cast is admirable in their respective roles, I didn’t feel quite as engaged in the story as I should have been. Perhaps the truth of survival in the wilderness is the detached monotony of everyday life, but I can’t help but think the film would have benefitted by moving from the dense forest location more often. Perhaps if there were sequences following some of the more peripheral characters within the partisan group as they gather supplies, or gathered intelligence about their surroundings it would have broken the slight case of ennui.
With strong performances and an important story to tell, Defiance is a very satisfying experience, even if it has some pacing issues.
Bonus Drinking Game
Down a shot: whenever someone smiles (rare)
Take a drink: whenever the word “Freedom” or any derivations are used
Take a swig of vodka: whenever the Russians do
Drink a full beer: when you realize that you’re playing a drinking game to a Holocaust movie, you magnificent bastard.