January 26, 2009

Movie Review: Defiance (2008)

defiance3_largeThis is a movie that built up some decent expectations in my head based solely on the trailer. There is something about the way it was edited and timed to the music that really drove it home that this was going to be an excellent film. Plus I was interested in seeing Daniel Craig in a role other than Bond. He is so good at that role that it is nice to be reminded that he can play other characters as well (except for whoever he was in Invasion). Now, having seen the film, I have to say it is a pretty good one, although it is far from great. It is a story worth seeing, so long as you remember that it has been amped up a little for the big screen and is likely less than forthcoming with all of the facts. In other words, do not take everything that happens as being true.

defiancepic2Defiance is a film that is heroic, optimistic, and feels just a little but like a Hollywood motivational feature. Not that that is a bad thing, but as a true story, it comes across as a little cleaned up, with the edges smoothed off and any questionable actions removed. Much like a biopic, of which this shares some similarities, it has been rounded off to with just the important beats remaining. I am fairly certain there were at least some questionable activities involved with keeping the forest community going aside from what we are given here. In the end, the movie does not seem to be overly concerned with utter reality, it more wants to tell a story of heroism and survival in the face of a great enemy. Sometimes, just sometimes, that is all that we need.

At the center of this movie are the Bielski brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), and Asael (Jamie Bell). They are living in separate places as WWII breaks out around them. They all head home in order to be with each other and protect their parents, but they arrive too late. At the outset, the brothers find their parents dead and themselves on the run in an attempt to avoid the roving authorities. They hide in the woods that they have known their entire lives. It is here that they plan to fight back.

defiancepic3It is obvious early on that there is a bit of a differing opinion between the oldest siblings, Tuvia and Zus. Tuvia is interested in survival as an act of defiance, helping any and all Jews that they can along the way. Zus, on the other hand, is more of the action type and looks to take the fight to the Germans as often as he can. This difference in outlook helps set up the central struggle of the film. Which is the better way to fight back? Is there a right and a wrong in this situation? Not a terribly easy question to answer.

The story is an interesting one. We watch the Bielski Partisans (as they came to be known) begin to rebuild society in the forest, always under the fear that the Nazi's will discover them. We get images of everyday life and love, alongside everyday concerns like obtaining food and building shelters. It is a life that is threatened when Tuvia and Zus' disagreements go too far and they come to blows. The end result is Zus joining a cadre of Soviet soldiers and going on strikes against the encroaching Germans.

Defiance plays well on the emotional impact and heroism implicit in what they do. If nothing else, you will come away with the wonderfully uplifting knowledge of a small group of people fighting the odds and saving lives. However, as touching as the impact of the story is, I cannot help but feel the film could have been better and more involving on a personal level.

defiancepic10When watching the story from above, in a detached manner the emotional impact was far greater than when attempting to feel involved with the characters on a personal level. This lack of personal interaction goes a long way towards lessening the overall impact of the film. Still, it is hard to find exactly where to place the blame. Is it the director, Edward Zwick, and his penchant for flawed heroism that ultimately triumphs? Perhaps it is the screenplay that Zwick co-wrote with Clayton Frohman (based on a novel by Nechama Tec)? I would tend to believe it is more the fault of the screenplay, which fails to allow entry aside from a high view look down.

The performances were quite good, for the most part. Liev Shreiber stood out as the best of the bunch offering up a nuanced performance that has him questioning his brother before choosing his own path, a path which leads to more conflicted feelings concerning his decision. Daniel Craig is fine, delivering a more stoic performance that has him forced into a leadership role as he tries to help all he can.

One final note, the score is fantastic. James Newton Howard's work shines throughout with some nice solo string work helping support the piece. It is definitely one of the better pieces from 2008.

Bottomline. Good movie. It fails to excel to come anywhere near greatness, but the story it tells is an interesting one and the fact that people went through anything resembling this is amazing. It is a film worth spending some time with and it will affect you emotionally, just be prepared to be left just a little bit cold in the execution.



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