With the possible exception of Valkyrie, no recent movie has gotten less out of a mind-boggling piece of history than Defiance. The director, Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai), who co-wrote the script, wants to honor the harrowing and inspiring story of the Bielski brothers, who, in the midst of the Holocaust, founded a small civilization in the forests of Belarus.
They not only escaped the Nazis and harassed them, but also helped others to escape and elude them. They created a community that would enable them to survive as self-respecting human beings, not animals. What Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), their leader, established was like a movable Eastern European kibbutz, without the farming. (For food, the Bielskis and their followers foraged in the manner of partisan brigades, taking staples like potatoes from farmers in amounts that wouldn't starve or imperil them.)
Zwick and his co-writer, Clayton Frohman, want this story to capture the complexity, as well as the heart-thumping fervor, of humanistic heroism forged in gunfire. But they reduce these forest champions to mouthpieces: The characters regurgitate predigested points of view as if they were intellectual cud. The filmmakers make Tuvia the voice of good faith and reason, his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) the vengeance seeker who believes only in action, and their kid brother, Asael (Jamie Bell), the innocent who must find his own way between them.
The fourth brother, Aron Bielski, played by George MacKay, is too traumatized and young to figure in the debates. But from his first symbolic act - he's the first to discover other escapees from the Nazis in the forest - he abets Tuvia's push for community.
The filmmakers mean to ensure that viewers won't miss the forest for the trees, but, in effect, they whittle the verdant material down to stick figures who announce their purpose from the get-go. The gathering of the Bielski brothers in the forest, Tuvia's confrontation with the local policemen who executed his parents, his revulsion at his own cruelty and Zus' bloodlust - all these are rendered surely and swiftly. And the movie is peppered with stirring vignettes. Tuvia welcomes all Jews into his camp: They often arrive sickly or hungry and with nothing more than ragged or woefully inappropriate clothes on their backs. He tries to make good use of each of them - a watchmaker, for example, finds new purpose as a rifle repairman. Tuvia even smuggles part of a ghetto population out of a city and into his forest enclave.
But the temperamental and ideological clash between Tuvia and Zus proves to be the fulcrum of the script. Zus wants to kill Germans and collaborators, Tuvia wants to hold his fire when possible and create an oasis of freedom. This scenario is trite and arid, like Thesis and Antithesis 101. (Asael's characterization suggests a synthesis: Whenever Tuvia is weakened, whether by typhus or by doubt, Asael provides Tuvia with the prod he needs to take decisive action.)
The movie leaves you in an awful tangle of amazement and disbelief: Amazement that Tuvia Bielski did turn a group of civilians into a nimble fighting force and a commune that could defend itself, but disbelief at his accomplishment's stagey and banal rendering. In this portrayal of events, Zus enlists in the Soviet brigade of Viktor Panchenko (Ravil Isyanov) until (A) he vents his bloodlust, (B) the anti-Semitism of the Soviets puts him off and (C) the dual pulls of family and ethnic identity become too strong for him to resist. As Paul Simon might have put it, a brother and brother reunion is only a motion away.
Director Zwick could have burrowed so deeply into the material that audiences would have had to struggle with their own mixed feelings of triumph and abhorrence at Zus' more bloodthirsty deeds and their own mingling of satisfaction and impatience with Tuvia's. Or Zwick could have taken an Olympian storyteller's point of view, so that the sight and sound of a young boy asking whether Tuvia, this charismatic leader on a white horse, is a Jew, would be deliciously ironic instead of faintly embarrassing and/or mildly comical.
Zwick remains an in-between kind of filmmaker, neither brilliant nor instinctive. At best, his ambition unearths extraordinary new material for the screen. Thanks largely to the female players, the bonds between Tuvia and Lilika (Alexa Davalos), Zus and Bella (Iben Hjejle, too little seen since High Fidelity) and Asrael and Chaya (Mia Wasikowska, the young phenom who played the teen gymnast in HBO's In Treatment) capture the furtive romance and sexiness of love during wartime. Though they lack any family resemblance, Craig and Schreiber are such good actors that they grow to look like each other: Maybe their individual urgency pulls them together.
Still, stereotypes surround the stars and choke off their best moments - for example, in the Bielski camp, the devout schoolteacher who genially argues with the socialist pamphleteer (Allan Corduner and Mark Feuerstein, respectively), and, in Panchenko's brigade, the ominous, bald whistler who turns out to be a rabid Jew-hater (Rolandas Boravskis). Part of the film's problem, even on its own war-movie terms, is that Zwick doesn't know when to stop. When the schoolteacher says, "I almost lost my faith," actor Corduner goes way beyond the words' banality. But Zwick squelches the power of the moment by turning it into a forced benediction for Tuvia. Zwick says all his films become personal; if so, his personal expression has become corrupted by cliches. He doesn't know when to stop, and he doesn't know how to start either.
(Paramount Vantage) Starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell. Directed by Edward Zwick. Rated R for violence and language. Time 129 minutes.