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Friday, June 19, 2009
  DVD Review: Defiance

Defiance is a movie about the Bielski partisans, Jews who fought the Nazis guerilla-style during World War II from the forests of what was then German-occupied Poland (now Belarus) led by the Bielski brothers. It was co-written and directed by Edward Zwick, who also made Glory, Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai. Zwick certainly has a taste for historical dramas with lots of action, and Defiance is no different. It’s a very well-made film that’s very respectful of the true-life story it’s telling, and it succeeds largely because of the cast of actors Zwick has assembled to tell the Bielskis’ story.

Daniel Craig, easily the most talented actor to play James Bond since Sean Connery sipped martinis and karate-chopped Russian spies, does some quality work as Tuvia Bielski, the reluctant leader of the Bielski Otriad, who, along with his brothers Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael(Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell, who has turned into an excellent actor), turned a group of Jews hiding out from the Nazis in the forests into a band of resistance fighters. Usually the “reluctant hero” is just a quick way for screenwriters to give the protagonist an artificial character arc, but in this case, Craig really makes you believe that this guy initially wanted no part of being any kind of leader. At first he’s just concerned with keeping himself and his two brothers alive, and he initially almost resents the growing number of refugees coming to him seeking shelter and some semblance of security. If you only know Craig from the new Bond movies, Defiance will set you straight: this guy can act.

I’ve liked Liev Schreiber in everything I’ve seen him in, and Defiance may be the best work of his I’ve watched. He gets the meatier, if smaller, role of Zus, the more hot-headed of the two senior Bielskis who eventually quits the Otriad to join the Russian army in its fight against the Nazis, but his loyalty to and love for his brothers is never in doubt. The relationship between Zus and Tuvia forms the core of Defiance, and having two great actors in those roles goes a long way to making this movie as good as it is.

Zwick treats his subjects with great respect, and wisely doesn’t try to turn Defiance into a history lesson (his own words, from the commentary) and keeps the scale of the story small. Aside from some text at the opening of the movie, Defiance takes for granted that the viewer is familiar with the plight of European Jews during World War II (and really, there’s no excuse not to be). It helps him tell the Bielski brothers’ story clearly and concisely, and he never gets bogged down with details of what was going on elsewhere during the war. In that sense, Defiance seems less like a World War II movie than a movie that happens to be set during World War II. Part of this is likely due to the fact that Defiance had a relatively small budget, but it’s a testament to the filmmakers that you wouldn’t know it to look at it; Defiance, like all of Zwick’s work, is a great-looking movie.

As much as the marketing tried to sell it as an action movie – and there are more than a few battles, but they’re nasty affairs rather than sexy, stylized shoot-‘em-up sequences – it’s really a drama about what these people went through during their time in the woods, and its fascinating, compelling stuff. It’s serious without being depressing, and it never feels preachy (which was my primary complaint with Zwick’s last movie, the noble yet heavy-handed Blood Diamond). And as much as Craig’s character is heroic through his deeds and the lives he and his brothers save, Zwick also doesn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes their actions were brutal and difficult to justify. Guerilla-style warfare doesn’t really lend itself to honour and nobility, and it never feels like the movie tries to gloss over that fact.

Overall I was quite impressed with Defiance. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a solid film that blends gritty, well-executed action sequences and human drama to tell a remarkable true-life story of heroism.



There’s a commentary track from Zwick that starts off sounding oddly prepared, sort of like he’s giving a lecture, but he soon relaxes into a more conversational tone. But the fact that he seems to have prepared for the commentary means it’s actually quite informative both in terms of the historical origins of the story as well as details of the production itself.

There’s also a pair of above-average featurettes, one focusing on the production, which is surprisingly in-depth considering it’s relatively brief running time, covering everything from the cast to the costumes, as well as a very nice mini-documentary about the children and grandchildren of the Bielskis. It’s quite affecting watching Tuvia Bielski’s children talk about their father opening up to them to discuss his experiences, and it’s hard not to be moved watching them get choked up talking about the harrowing experiences of their fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles. And watching them visit the movie set – clearly a special experience for all of them – is the sort of thing that elevates the Defiance disc above the usual extras you find on most DVDs.

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