By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Edward Zwick
STARS Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber
The landmark 1970s TV miniseries Holocaust and the 2002 theatrical release The Grey Zone both touched upon the topic, but Edward Zwick's Defiance might be the first celluloid outing to focus exclusively on the efforts of Jews to violently oppose their Nazi oppressors during World War II. Certainly, it's an overdue entry in the long history of Hollywood Holocaust flicks, but it's a shame that such an intriguing story didn't receive a more distinguished rendering.
Adapted by Zwick and co-scripter Clayton Frohman from Nechama Tec's nonfiction book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, this centers on three siblings who battle the German threat from within the Belarus Forest. The eldest, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), is hardly a natural born leader but always manages to keep things in perspective. Middle son Zus (Liev Schreiber) is far more tempestuous, eventually breaking from his brother to fight alongside the Soviet Red Army. And youngest lad Asael (Jamie Bell) is initially a naïve greenhorn but quickly gets his initiation under fire. The Bielskis soon earn a reputation for their guerilla tactics that keep the Nazis off balance, and before long, scores of other Jews join them in their forest sanctuary. But as their numbers grow, so does the risk of exposure, and Tuvia realizes it's up to him to lead these people to safety.
Zwick's epics (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai) have never lacked for propulsive power, but Defiance is the first to constantly stumble over itself even as it tries to get its tale in gear. Episodic in nature, it places stock characters (one fresh-faced intellectual, check; one gently questioning rabbi, check; one vicious troublemaker, check; one foxy lady to frolic in the forest with Tuvia, check) in stock situations that require characters to spout off inspirational clichés every few scenes. Still, Craig and Schreiber make for interesting contrasts in masculinity, and it's at least commendable that somebody finally got around to paying tribute to these woodland warriors.