A unique, important and inspiring WWII story has been made into a strangely uninvolving movie. The portrayal of Jews who fled the Nazis, lived in the woods, established a clandestine community and periodically fought back against Hitler’s army offers a refreshing take on the usual Holocaust imagery. Yet despite being based on true accounts, the story feels more like Hollywood-ized fiction.
Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, one of the two brothers who established the rules and order of the secret community and served as the camp’s leader. Craig is a solid actor and a genuine movie star but entirely wrong for the role. The familiarity of Craig as James Bond hurts his characterization; even when his character is gravely ill, Craig still looks like he could outrun a fireball in slow motion. He may bring in audiences who want to see Bond vs. Hitler, but those expecting an all-out action movie may be somewhat disappointed. Liev Schreiber co-stars as Zus Bielski, Tuvia’s headstrong brother. Schreiber, a great and reliably compelling actor, makes every scene count and draws you in completely.
The explosion-heavy climax would not be out of place in Rambo but is all wrong here. It feels like the filmmakers are trying extra hard to keep you entertained, despite the fact that you’re watching an often wrenching story.
When the focus is on the details of how this hidden camp was run and kept alive for so long, the film is fascinating. Witnessing how POW camp escapees had to abide by “camp rules” and live in conditions that bring to mind (at best) Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest community is not only moving but causes one to wonder, what would I do? There are powerful moments but, because many of the key characters are portrayed in such limited, one-note ways, it feels like something is missing.
Director Edward Zwick—whose films include Glory, The Last Samurai and Legends of the Fall—specializes in telling tales of personal struggle set against times of war or great social strife. Unfortunately, he misses the mark here.
For an example of how to treat this kind of material well, see the recent Nazi-themed Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie, which provides audiences with a startlingly unique take on one of the worst moments in human history. Where Valkyrie overcomes its potentially distracting movie star casting, Defiance is handicapped by it.
Finally, a note to those who rely solely on the movies and Wikipedia for history lessons: no, James Bond did not defeat the Nazis. MTW