Jewish Resistance triumphs in ‘Defiance’


It sounds like the premise of countless classic World War II movies: a group of determined Resistance fighters strike at the Nazis from a secret base deep in an East European forest. But there is a twist to this historically-based action movie: the Resistance fighters are Jewish.

Without a doubt, Defiance delivers on all the war movie heroics you could want.

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The hero (of James Bond fame, no less) swoops in to rescue a bedraggled bunch of Jewish women, children and old folks, protects them in a forest stronghold and then proceeds to seriously kick Nazi butt. Who wouldn’t want to see that? And while there is a lot to like about this film, there also are some serious missed opportunities.

Defiance is inspired by the actual story of the Bielski brothers and their forest Resistance group. The Bielskis hid out in the forests of Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, when the German army overran their village. Outraged when their parents were killed by the Nazis, the brothers not only engaged in guerrilla attacks on them but also sheltered an unexpected assortment of Jews, old and young, women and children, in a forest city. They even sent messages to those in the ghettos, whispering “come to the forest.” At war’s end, 1,200 Jews walked out of the Belarus forest.

It is a survivor’s tale of a different sort, not the kind usually seen in movies about the Shoah. Based on Nechama Tec’s book, Defiance is a heroic, action-packed, even romantic film drawn from true events, but certainly not a documentary.

Daniel Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, one of four brothers on an isolated farm at the forest’s edge in Belarus, who becomes the charismatic leader of the group. Liev Schreiber plays his brother Zus, with whom Tuvia has a prickly relationship. The Bielskis have a reputation for distrust of authority and even some shady dealings that has put them in conflict with the law. But they know the forest like no one else. Any faults Defiance has certainly don’t stem from its production values or the acting. The film looks gorgeous and action scenes are well staged.

Craig turns in a strong performance as the idealistic Tuvia, making the character uniquely memorable rather than reinventing the Agent 007 action hero he is now famous for playing. The gifted Liev Schreiber offers a well-drawn, darker, smoldering Zus as dramatic counterbalance to Tuvia’s idealism.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) is sincere in wanting to tell a different kind of tale of the Shoah, one in which an untold tale of Jewish resistance and determination counteracts the numerous Holocaust films that focus on victimhood. With big stars like Craig and Schreiber, top-notch production values and compelling location shots in a Lithuanian forest, Defiance is a big Hollywood-style crowd-pleaser, one where the Jews win and the Nazis lose. What’s not to like?

But while Zwick succeeds in creating a winning action film with a strong Jewish hero, Defiance fails to lead audiences to learn more about the genuinely amazing history on which the movie is based.

Zwick’s polished Hollywood film simplifies the more layered historic story, sometimes reducing the facts to almost backdrop in service of a rousing tale.

Too many of these real people are boiled down to familiar movie icons.

Dialogue is often stiff and can seem contrived, despite the efforts of a good cast.

A little more realism and a little more human complexity would have served the story better.

Although Defiance is rousing entertainment, the film squanders its potential to be so much more.

As in the case of Zwick’s previous film Blood Diamond, the director buries a worthy — and interesting true premise — under the excesses of a big studio action film. Hopefully, audiences will take the extra step to learn more about the real people, including the Bielskis, who were the Resistance fighters.