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Thank you for checking out my movie review archive. I'm in the process of transitioning to something else, so I will no longer post new reviews to this blog. In the meantime, I will keep these reviews archived; these are from the fall of 2008 to April 2011. Please watch this blog for more info and keep in touch (you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter). Here's to more great movies!

Wes Singleton

North Texas Film Critics Association

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Defiance - B

Rated R for violence and language, 137 minutes

Tense, compelling but uplifting "Defiance" gives a different look at the Jewish struggle in Nazi Germany

Just when you thought you knew everything about the Jewish struggle in Nazi Germany comes the powerful, uplifting Defiance. It’s the true story of the Bielski brothers, who led a Jewish resistance group that survived in the forests in Eastern Europe for several years at the height of Nazi occupation during World War II. Defiance is a compelling portrayal that takes liberties with its casting and some inaccuracies with its story, but otherwise is an effective reminder of the Jewish struggle during this time.

Four Jewish brothers – Tuva (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and the youngest, Aron (George Mackay) escape Nazi-occupied Poland after seeing most of their family murdered by the Nazi regime. Always hunted, they move deep into hiding in the forest, where they set up camp with a few other Jewish refugees. They hear of “Otriads,” or resistance fighters that consist of various Jewish encampments.

They soon establish their own Otriad and before long have dozens of other Jewish refugees in their encampment, and are forced to periodically move around to avoid detection. The Jews are also sympathetic with the Soviets, who are also fighting the Nazi regime, and some fight along with the Soviet army stationed in the area. The Bielski Otriad struggles for survival not just from the Nazi’s, but from the unpredictable elements that include brutal, harsh winters, lack of food and instability within the encampment itself.

Defiance is capably made from director and writer Edward Zwick, who directed such films as Blood Diamond, Glory and The Last Samurai. Zwick competently helms the action, arouses some tense moments and elicits strong performances from most of the cast, including Craig, Schreiber and Bell as the three older brothers, who lead the Jewish encampment and help fight for its survival. Defiance is just one of many countless, uplifting stories of the Jewish struggle during this time that have been overlooked over the years. It’s a shame that the Bielski story has gone this long without being told, since they saved as many as Oskar Schindler (around 1200) and their story just as inspirational as Anne Frank.

Defiance isn’t without its flaws, and some of them are controversial. First, is the casting of blond, blue-eyed Craig (in a role far different than James Bond) as Tuva. Though he ably carries the film and it’s true that his real character was often able to pass as a non-Jew, some may have difficulty grasping his portrayal with such WASP-ish, Redford-like looks. In addition, those familiar with the Bielski’s may also note that Zwick takes some cinematic liberties to add dramatic accessibility to the movie. Accounts of the real story aren’t entirely detailed about brotherly tension between Tuva and Zus, not to mention a final, climactic battle with overly Hollywood action-film notions of “saving the day.”

Liberties aside, Defiance is still an entertaining, engaging movie as it rightfully honors the Bielski’s and their efforts. Zwick steers clear of heavy political messages with the film (though a couple of scenes are fittingly disturbing – one involving a captured Nazi and the killing of a German family), with a clear focus on these tough Jews’ survival in the forest. Production qualities are high, and it’s handsomely shot on location in Lithuania, not far from where the real Bielski forest camps were located.

Defiance also has a nice coda, as the two older brothers emigrated to the U.S., where they worked hard and lived out their days in humble existence. It’s unfortunate that the Bielski’s story has been overlooked all these years, and for that reason this solid, effective film is worth a look.