DVD Release Date:  June 2, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 31, 2008 (limited); January 16, 2009 (wide)
Rating:  R (for violence and strong language.)
Genre:  Drama, Action, War, Adaptation
Run Time:  129 min.
Director:  Edward Zwick
Cast:  Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a dumb generic action movie, nor is there with its opposite—i.e. a contemplative drama that challenges and unsettles you. Combining the two, however, is a tricky marriage usually wrought with failure.  That mixture, unfortunately, defines the work of director Edward Zwick.

From Legends of the Fall to The Last Samurai and the recent Blood Diamond, Zwick’s penchant for self-important dramatics has garnered as much praise as groans over the years, though more of the latter in hindsight (with Glory being the lone exception that really holds up).  There’s something even more crass about Zwick’s style of Hollywood melodrama in the context of brutal real-life tragedies, and that’s what we get with Defiance.

The story is based on the stirring historical account of the Bielski brothers and their efforts to save fellow Jews from the ghettos and death camps of Nazi Germany.  While most Jews were victims, the Bielski’s believed in resistance.  The drama comes early, however, as they disagree about what resistance should look like. 

Scarred by an impulsive act of vengeance, Tuvia (James Bond’s Daniel Craig) prefers taking refuge deep in the dense forest, welcoming as many fellow Jews as possible, embracing a nomadic existence and only defending when necessary.  Zus (Liev Schreiber) prefers proactive aggression, splitting from his brothers to join local Russian forces.  Asael (Jamie Bell), the youngest, is torn between the two but eventually stays with Tuvia, playing an integral role in the survival of their clandestine community.

The focus remains mostly on the refugees and the challenges they face trying to survive in secret.  The depiction of these challenges is where Zwick makes this true story feel rather false.  For one, the structure follows a formulaic arc with familiar beats (refugees initially unite, then the struggle causes them to turn on Tuvia, all hope seems lost before Tuvia inspires them and ultimately they reunite in a triumphant final act).  The flow never surprises but rather feels painstakingly constructed.  Even specific clashes are predictable; it was not an issue of “if” but “when” refugees would furiously scream at Tuvia, “Who do you think you are—Moses?!”

Other elements—the chest-beating woe when news of dead loved ones arrives, raging moral debates between absolutist and relativist views, various close calls with the enemy, not to mention quickly developed romantic entanglements—all feel stock (and often underscored by a mournful violin).  One vile character even exists solely to raise dissension and conflict in the camp, but he’s so absurd that his presence only reinforces the film’s contrived nature.  This talented cast is unable to elevate what’s required of them as they succumb to the weight of Zwick’s theatrics.

What’s missing amidst all the histrionics is any exploration of how these refugees actually dealt with real day-to-day challenges; the acquisition of resources like food, clothing, and most of all medicine, weapons and ammunition.  Other than brief references to rationing, these trials are mostly ignored and thus negate a vital context for the interpersonal conflicts.  What we’re left with are multiple variations of standard heated arguments and actual fisticuffs, all eventually diffused by noble bromides (“Our vengeance is to live!” and “Each day of freedom is a victory!”), overly-scripted monologues, and inspirational deathbed speeches.