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Thursday, 15 January 2009

Defiance, 2008 - Movie Review

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell
Running Time: 137 minutes
Score: 7 / 10

This review by RevSykes - May contain spoilers.

Edward Zwick is an idealistic filmmaker. My favorites of his are Glory and Blood Diamond. Last Samurai not so much. He wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine last week stating that he was attracted to the book Defiance because it portrayed Jews of WWII not as victims, as is so common. Like many Jews (see "Tough Jews" by Rich Cohen) he romanticizes the Jewish gangster connections of earlier generations of Jewish immigrants, and sees in them the protagonists that the victims of the Holocaust weren't.

Fair enough, or, should I say, not fair at all, since I do not share the view that the civilian Jews of Europe were passive because they could not defeat or evade the German military and local death squads. Why is this relevant to "Defiance?" Because Zwick let his bias affect what he chose to portray in the historical drama of "Defiance." There is a brief shot of the bodies left behind of the mass killings of Jews in what was then Russia in 1941 (long forgotten in the East until Yevvtushenko's "Babi Yar" of 1961). I think that one of the reasons (more below) that "Defiance" is not nearly as powerful as "Schindler's List" is that Zwick was unwilling to portray the grotesque drama of the massacres that happened in Byelorussia in 1941 because, to him, it made Jews look like victims. It's all referred to off-screen. "Schindler's List" punches you in the stomach with the vivid depiction of the concentration camps and crematoria -- historical truths -- and it makes Schindler's story of saving his workers into an epic. So could "Defiance" have been. Maybe the Bielieskis' story is not as heroic as Schindler's, but I don't think so. Theirs is probably more so (though different of course -- Schindler wasn't facing a direct murderous threat). If Zwick had put his movie in the proper historical framework (I'm not talking about gratuitous violence, which would, anyway, be hard to achieve given the reality of what the Germans did to civilians) the story of the Bieleskis saving 1200 Jews would have had some of the impact of Schindler's story of saving the Jewish workers on his list.

My second critique is poor character development of the Daniel Craig character. Yes, he's aggrieved over what degree of vengeful violence against the Germans is necessary or appropriate. He starts off an aggressive killer and then pulls back, becoming (aided by the prolonged bout of typhus) quite passive. We can call the Craig character "complex" or "conflicted," but there is very little context to explain him. Schreiber's character is perhaps more "on the nose," but it is understandable, both to us and to Schreiber, who does a good job with it. Craig's character, to me, is a series of events, not a character.

The joining theme of these ideas is the problem of historical cinema when you want to get the benefit of "based on a true story," at the front of your film. We know this is a very, very broad term. Clint Eastwood left out the killer's mother, who was totally involved in the action in reality, when he dramatized, "The Changeling." Did Schreiber and his colleagues show up at the very last second and disarm a German tank when Craig was the only one left standing to defend the Jews? Unlikely. So Zwick messed with the military history, as is necessary in a Hollywood movie. But did he feel constrained by the true characters of the brothers? Or, worse, did he feel constrained as to what he could make of those characters because of the need to portray them as heroic? I would argue the opposite. Zwick described the brothers as "sexually predacious" in his NYT article. But, in the movie, they appear to be pretty much gentlemen (Schreiber leaving his "forest wife" to join with the Red Army isn't much of a mark against him). If the characters had been more vivid, including more negative, I think their "heroism" would have been more dramatic.

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