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Defiance (2008)

Action & Adventure, Drama, and Military & War movie directed by Edward Zwick

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Survival of the Fittest

  • Dec 31, 2008
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True to its advertising claims, "Defiance" tells a story I've never heard before: That of the Bielski Partisans, a Jewish rebellion from Poland that rallied against Nazi occupiers at the height of World War II. Originally founded by the remaining sons of the Bielski family, it soon ballooned into an organization consisting of thousands of people, all freed from local Jewish ghettos. They struggled to survive in the Belarussian forests, facing starvation, disease, and exposure to the elements. Their story was documented in the book "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans" by Nechama Tec, and this is the basis for the Edward Zwick's film. I give him credit for directing and co-writing a compelling story in which core human emotions are at odds with basic survival skills; in any such scenario, one must decide whether forgiveness, fairness, and tolerance is more important than staying alive.

In spite of its subject matter, "Defiance" is far from a perfect film. A lot of it felt like an adaptation, which is to say that it relies too heavily on war movie clichés like melodramatic dialogue and overt symbolism. I was especially wary of a death scene late in the film; with his last breath, he turns to Daniel Craig's character and says, "I had almost lost my faith. But you were sent by God to save us." Does this not seem contrived? It's second only to obvious visual statements for hope and redemption, as when sunshine bathes the partisans after weeks of harsh winter conditions, or when they all trudge across a swamp in the same way Moses and his chosen people trudged across the parted Red Sea. The creativity and technical merits of such moments are overshadowed by the sense that they don't belong.

Still, the drama is persuasive, and the performances are decent given the material they had to work with. Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and George MacKay portray Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron Bielski, four brothers from West Belarus who lost their parents soon after the Germans invaded. Aron is virtually ignored in the film, and whenever he is featured, he mostly remains quiet and unassuming. The other three, however, are given very distinct personalities, all of which add to the drama and make the story much more personal. Tuvia, for example, is initially angry over the deaths of his parents, and he personally tracks down and kills the Germans responsible. But it isn't long before he realizes how wrong his actions were, and he spends the rest of the film trying to convince himself that the best revenge is mere survival. He also believes that everyone in hiding deserves equal portions of food and must do their fair share of work; this puts him at odds with certain survivors, who feel that those working harder deserve better treatment.

Zus, on the other hand, remains angry throughout the entire film. He doesn't agree with Tuvia's more forgiving philosophy--he wants revenge, plain and simple. Because he doesn't get along with his brother, he decides to join a militant group of Soviet partisans also at odds with the Nazis. And as for Asael, the film focuses more on his romance with a young girl named Chaya (Mia Wasikowska), who in real life held the rare distinction of being a high school graduate.

Having now done a little research on the subject, I'm surprised at just how much Zwick left out of the screenplay. One of the biggest controversies surrounding the film is the omission of the 1943 Naliboki Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 128 people. The Bielski partisans were accused of taking part in this alongside Soviet partisans. The fact that many historians deny their involvement should be of no consequence; an event so monumentally tragic should at least be acknowledged as having happened. I'm well aware that a film can only hold so much material before it gets unbearably long, but the way I see it, the Naliboki Massacre is too important to have overlooked.

There are also a few logistical issues that seemed to have slipped under the radar, such as the fact that so many of the partisans are never in short supply of alcohol. Where are they getting this alcohol from, and why is it easier to get than food? This doesn't seem very plausible.

Despite these problems, "Defiance" is still worth recommending, mostly because the performances are believable. It has its other good points: the cinematography is top notch, revealing the squalor the partisans had to live in; James Newton Howard's score is both solemn and exciting, a combination of violin dirges and piano solos; the struggle between survival and vengeance is convincing, especially during a scene in which a Nazi is captured and made to face the wrath of the partisans. I see this film as an introduction of sorts, a way to let the public know that it's based on actual events. Now that we know, I think it would be wise for another filmmaker to tell a more accurate story, one that doesn't have to rely on traditional war movie clichés to send the audience a message.

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More Defiance (2008) reviews
review by . October 19, 2010
This is a great movie. It is a story that should be told and should be known by everyone. The acting was also good. However, I was left somewhat unsatisfied. I thought after seeing it that more should have been told about how the brothers fought against the Nazis, rather than spending so much time on the rift between them. I was somewhat bothered by the jump in the story, as if the narrator was saying, "so it continued for more than a year and then..." A lot must have happened during the year. What …
review by . July 08, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
The subject matter is incredible, brothers that saved over 1200 people during World War II. What an amazing fantastic strong story. The most powerful moment of this film, the still images of the brothers just before the credits roll. Beside those pictures appear what happened to each afterwards and about how they saved 1200 people, who went on to have hundreds of thousands of children. Incredible.    This is just not a good movie in comparison to this fabulous history. At one …
review by . June 06, 2009
This motto serves to sum the feelings of the Bielski brothers as they escape the horrors of the Nazi extermination of Jews in 1941. Adapted from Dr. Nechama Tec's book DEFIANCE: THE BIELSKI PARTISANS by director Edward Zwick and Clayton Frohman this film is as much about family devotion as it is about extended family. It is a touching story of survival under the most impossible conditions and a story of heroism that is far too unknown among even scholars of the WW II period.    Set …
review by . June 05, 2009
"Defiance"    Tuvia and Zus    Amos Lassen    The three Bielski brothers were on the run and hiding in the forests of the then German occupied Poland and Byelorussia during World War II. They are forced to hunt for food and weapons so that they can survive. Their lives are racked with fear of discovery and they have to deal with the Soviets who are their neighbors and they have to know who they can trust as well as be responsible for taking …
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Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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Three ferociously committed actors fill the roles of the Bielski brothers, Jewish partisans who escaped into the forests of Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Daniel Craig (taking a break from 007 duty) is Tuvia, the leader of a group of refugees who eventually number over a thousand; Liev Schreiber is Zus, the antagonistic warrior; and Jamie Bell is Asael, a peacemaker no less devoted to the survival of the community. The three performers give life to director Edward Zwick's account of this little-known chapter of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, which otherwise plays more like a history lesson than a full-blooded movie. The film's best achievement is its strong location work, in Lithuania--as the community makes its home in the forest, the landscape becomes an important player in the drama at hand, and the changing of the seasons is charted with bone-chilling detail. Schreiber manages to get a little wry humor into this otherwise sober enterprise, and Daniel Craig creates an unusual character: a sort of anti-Bond, a hero whose body is all too fallible and whose decision-making is sometimes hesitant or morally compromised. It's a rare hero in a World War II movie that tends to withdraw from scenes rather than stride into them, but that's what Craig does. More than likely, the movie's main achievement will be sending the curious to read the histories of the Bielski brothers and why they matter in the chronicles of the Holocaust.--Robert Horton

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Director: Edward Zwick
Genre: War, Action, Drama, Adventure
Screen Writer: Edward Zwick, Clay Frohman
DVD Release Date: June 2, 2009
Runtime: 137 minutes
Studio: Paramount
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