A lot of the time, watching a movie, we recoil or start at something in it: That's fake, we say, and dismiss the whole film. On many occasions, that impulse is correct because the film is fake, but on rare occasions, we feel that sensation of dislocated wrongness not because the film is fake but because our world is; we can't wrap our heads around the facts and ugly truths of what we see, can't comprehend how such things are possible, and recoil from them out of refusal to believe, not because they aren't believable. This is one of the challenges Defiance, the newest drama from Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) faces as it tells the true story of the Bielski brothers, three Belorussian Jews and outlaw petty criminals who, during World War II's pogroms and purges, protected hundreds of Jews from the Nazis, some surviving and others actively fighting back.
We witness Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) make the decision to kill his horse so it can be eaten, and we cannot imagine such hunger. We watch Zus Bielski (Liev Schrieber) fight alongside Russians who hate him to stop Germans who hate him, and we cannot imagine such a grim choice. We watch Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell) fall in love, or a quick quip between two supporting characters, and we cannot imagine love, or laughter, in such a place. But there must have been such hunger; there must have been such anger; there must have been laughter, and love, in the years of exile. It's hard to imagine, but that doesn't mean it's not true.
Unfortunately, Zwick is a gifted storyteller who's greatest Achilles' heel has always been the confining starched-suit constraint of his earnest nobility. Throughout Defiance, Zwick falls into easy Hollywood and moviemaking moments, and can't quite find a way to make the material resonate as something other than a curious historical footnote --as a Jewish friend of mine noted after the AFI Fest premiere, when she said "I didn't know we could fight like that. ...." Now and then, Defiance has a stark, sharp edge to it; too many other times, it plays as a high-minded soap opera, with maudlin music and quick cuts turning unknown truth into familiar clichés.
The problem isn't that Defiance is the Hollywood version of the Bielski story -- for all his inventions and storytelling, Zwick's fairly unsentimental about death, sickness and starvation, about how deprivation and danger can bring out the worst in humans and not necessarily the best, about how for many people in Europe, much of life during the Second World War required horrible choices between hateful possibilities. The problem may be that we do have a frame of reference for the parts of the film that don't work, and we have no frame of reference for the parts of it that do. We know what bad, overdone musical cues are like; we cannot imagine being so starved and cold that we would fight for a bite of dog meat. I can't help but think that Defiance will play slightly better in Europe, for example, where bombs fell from the sky and troops marched in the streets, than it will in America, where the war was something soldiers went to and the home front only saw in newsreels and movies and letters home. ...
The actors are all fine, even in roles that the script cinches about the fairly tightly. Craig is hot, hunky and haunted as the reluctant leader of the camp; Schrieber is agreeably ratty and amoral as the 'bad' Bielski, more interested in payback than protection; Bell grows up fast and hard in ugly circumstances. The brothers all find love, as well -- again, it's hard to imagine such a thing, but considering that the Bielski camps were out in the forest for two years, hardly impossible. And the action is competently well-staged as well, whether it features people running from trouble or running to cause it; some of the sequences where Schrieber fights alongside Russian troops are nicely-cut, tense and enjoyable film making. But then a sad, mournful fiddle will play -- a weeping strain so maudlin you half expect Mandy Patinkin to walk out and sing -- and we're taken from the pleasure of watching a film by being reminded we're watching a film.
Shoehorned into the end of awards season, Defiance is an uneasy mix of action and suspense with meaningful themes, of emotion and adrenaline. Many film makers can move our emotions and spike our adrenaline (it's painfully obvious to say so, but Spielberg could have made this material into a very different, far better movie). Zwick tries to be one of them with every film, but keeps getting caught on his own humanism, the ethical equivalent of tripping on your shoelaces. Would a run-and-gun, pure action version of this story be a betrayal of the suffering of the real people with the Bieslkis, or the best possible tribute to their resistance? It's hard to say, but it might be suggested that might be a better movie, albeit not as "important" a "film." I don't think that Defiance is bad -- it's bad in spots, certainly, like when Allan Corduner's waaah-waaah laugh-line wise man slouches into view -- but more that it can't quite bear the burden of the studio's award season expectations while trying to carry the weight of moral responsibility Zwick places on it and himself. Defiance is one of those movies where, as you're watching it, you sincerely hope it sends people to the truth even as it fails as fiction.
As ever, Zwick's technical team is literally the best money can buy; the score is by James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight, Michael Clayton), and if it's overdone in some moments, it's strong in others. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Unbreakable, Girl with a Pearl Earring) paints the verdant, lush scope of the forest and the aching cold of winter white across the screen. Editor Seven Rosenblum (X-Men, Pearl Harbor) brings excitement to the action and grace to the quieter moments in the film. What does it say about Zwick's career that when you look at his films you can say definitively that not all of them have worked, but they have all tried to be about something? Zwick seems like an intelligent, compassionate and engaged man; in modern Hollywood, that may be a disadvantage, and we'll have to hope he might one day feel liberated to stop making movies out of good intentions and simply makes movies that are good in and of themselves.