Defiance
Directed by Edward Zwick
adapted by Zwick and Clayton Frohman, from the novel by Nechama Tec


The new film from Edward Zwick, with a screenplay adapted from Nechama Tec's novel by Clayton Frohman and Zwick, is a well crafted film that takes on the difficult task of trying to recount an episode emblematic of the most chaotic and confusing periods in modern history, and make some sort of sense out of it.

The film also has to work within the "based on a true story" rubric. When dealing with historic events, such a shifting middle ground between fiction and fact limits imagination at the same time that it practically requires historical distortions. Although some witnesses, journals, etc may document the events that took place, and the order in which they occurred, it is impossible that actual detailed dialogues can be reproduced accurately.

So, although "based" on facts, the film itself, the actual relationships it portrays, the characters it creates may (or even may not) correspond to historical reality. But they will be taken for what they are - a "depiction" of that reality, and therefore have to be viewed with a certain skepticism and objectivity to avoid allowing them to descend into "propaganda."

This is a particular problem with "war" films. As Clint Eastwood’s recent mirror-image films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima showed, in the provocative words of novelist John Crowley, “"here is always more than one true version of history." And in the confusion, chaos and randomness that is always central to the experience of war, the number of versions multiplies and deviates to the point where any "telling" is bound to be insufficient.

As a rule "war films" address this problem by ignoring it - telling the story from a linear-narrative point of view, as if that were the way it evolved in reality. In doing so, it is impossible to avoid the pitfall of placing in the foreground - and thereby implicitly endorsing - one particular perspective.

Most often, this breaks down into a "morality play," where one set of adversaries ("our side" - the side from whose point-of-view we see the story unfold) holds the moral high-ground against an enemy that is depraved and inhuman. While the "battle between good and evil" makes good theater - and exciting professional wrestling - it's not a very deep or useful analysis of the real conditions we humans face.

The dangerous side-effect of this is that it tends to glorify those who fight for "our side," as if war were not an up-welling of collective insanity, but rather a perfectly rational event. From time to time individual films - like All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Platoon and Apocalypse Now have come at the question from a very different angle, but even such films have a hard time presenting an accurate picture of the situations without risking inducing virtual PTSD in viewers parallel to that their real life counterparts in actual war situations experience.

One of the paramount obstacles to making honest films about war is that any film in which the reality of war were not "sanitized" to some degree would be repugnant and unwatchable. Moreover, any cinematic depiction of such a situation casts the viewer outside the excruciating reality of the carnage and suffering of the actual moment and in doing so can't help but transform it - to some degree - into something that elides the horrible truth.

This is an obstacle Defiance, for all it's noble purpose, and it's gestures in the direction of depicting the brutality and inhumanity of the institution itself, which are internalized by all participants to some degree, can't find a way to overcome. And it may be that it can't be overcome.

Nonetheless, Defiance is a well-made film. The story is compelling: four Belarusian-Jewish Bielski brothers become the kernel of a band of partisans who escape the Nazi's murder of their family and deadly attack on their community, then evade and harass the Nazis while protecting scores of defenseless civilians, from 1941 through the end of the war (in the end numbering more than 1,200). The David and Goliath theme and the persistence of human affection, responsibility and at least some degree of decency under even the most adverse conditions is an hopeful one.

Liev Schreiber, who plays the firebrand second son has said that he was attracted to the script because it wasn't a conventional war film - and he's right, it isn't It has some unique elements that introduce complexities beyond the scope of the simple-minded John Wayne vehicles of the 1950s.

In one especially difficult scene, the general population of the Bielski Otriad - as the partisan group comes to be known - civilians and soldiers, men and women alike, loose their own mad rage on a German soldier who has fallen into their hands. However heart-rending the outrages that fuel that anger may be, it is clear from the enthusiastic violence with which they pursue their luckless, helpless captive, that the madness of war has infected them as well.

In addition to being a fictionalization of an historical situation, Defiance is also a family drama as the sibling rivalry between first-born Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and youger-brother Zus (Schreiber) plays out against the background of life-and-death decisions. There's plenty of dramatic charge in the conflicting emotions released and it does add an note of humanity to the grander historical struggle.

The subtext of the banal churn of daily life, even in extreme circumstances, is one of the most engaging aspects of the film and Zwick clearly recognizes the ability of familiar events and dynamics to pull us in to the story. Thus a beautifully photographed wedding, perfomed outdoors in the gently-falling snow against the background of a forested hide-out is intercut with a violent attack by Russian partisans on a German column.

Episode-by-episode and scene-by-scene the film works very well, Only in reflecting on the overall narrative does the difficulty of telling such a story emerge, in a sense of all the complexities that have to be left out, and yet that one knows must somehow be central to individual experiences of the events. It's this sense of being "shortchanged" - of the incompleteness of any such attempt at representation - that leaves this film (and others of the genre) feeling that it strikes a false note.

An instructive contrast is last year's Black Book, a film that also revolved around resistance efforts in a Nazi occupied country, that was based on real events. The actual details of the two stories are different of course, but the handling of the stories, the characters who were highlighted - brought to the fore in the telling - and the attention to the moral complexities and the whole continuum of experience - rather than emphasizing the highly-contrasting extremes - made Black Book more evocative and resonant.

To the significant extent that Defiance does succeed, especially in the details of relationship and character it explores, much of that success can be credited to of the work of a committed and talented cast. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber do such a fine job of establishing their individual characters and embodying the sibling dynamics between them that the visual incongruity of the complete lack of family resemblance barely registers.

Craig invests Tuvia with a steely resolve that is tempered and humanized by his obvious longing to be released from the responsibilities he has taken on. Within that context his extreme action to end a conflict within the Otriad comes across as regrettable, shocking and arbitrary but necessary, all at once. That's the kind of moral and psychological ambiguity that gives the film its greatest authenticity.

Schreiber gives us the slow awakening of the "man-of-action," the impulsive, hot-headed younger brother, to a sense of responsibility and the awareness that his actions have consequences for others. In learning to balance his fire and his brother's groundedness he offers an unexpectedly positive take on the "law of unexpected consequences."

These two carry the film and are well-supported by a cast that is remarkable for the care that has been taken in giving each character depth and getting a strong performance from each actor. Jamie Bell is fine as Asael - the hero-worshipping third Bielski brother. Alan Corduner brings schoolteacher Shamon Haeretz to the screen with a mixture of vulnerability and unexpected strength. Alexa Davalos plays Lika, who becomes Tuvia's comrade-in-arms (and later wife) as a woman believably raised to a new level of independence and self-reliance by adversity. The entire roster of "secondary" characters (and there are many of them) is well cast and the performances are sharply drawn and effective.

The camera-work is very good indeed, as cinematographer Eduardo Serra employs a wide range of camera movement, placement and focus to add emphasis and drama to events. There are some lovely shots in the forest that use the natural background as a moving contrast to the man-made chaos of events unfolding in the foreground. The action scenes are shot with a vertiginous immediacy that is sometimes overpoweringly compelling. Suspense is built with camera angles and positions that suggest "discovery" rather than "establishment," and reflect the furtive nature of the Otraid's very existance.

Zwick, whose past work has been a very mixed-bag that ranges from the revealing and surprising Glory, to the epic but empty Legends of the Fall, to the overblown Last Samurai and most recently Blood Diamond, seems fascinated by violence and war. His exploration here is certainly the most mature exploration of the subject in any of his films that I have seen, but it founders on the obstacles I've outlined above and falls short of the level of introspection and examination that might yield new insight about this perverse but apparently insecapable human behavior.

As a retro "ripping yarn of war-time derring-do" - which is certainly an aspect of the film - it is "successful," although that very success diminishes it, and unfortunately trivializes the real suffering and real accomplishments of the Bielskis and their group. Although it is made with expert directorial pacing, fine acting and beautiful camera work that make it engaging to watch, the after-impression is one of missed opportunity and a profound story superficially told.

That's my take on it. What's yours?