Daniel Craig gets the nagging feeling he’s not alone in Defiance.
Four Jewish brothers survive an SS massacre of their village and escape into the forest and spend the next four years hiding out, harassing the German invaders with partisan attacks and, even more impressively, molding a secret communal village out of other escapees—hundreds of them, women and children, the elderly and infirm. It’s a true story, and the lowdown on Ed Zwick’s big-screen treatment, Defiance, is that the director doesn’t completely mess it up but he doesn’t really get it right, either. Zwick is too cautious and deliberate a filmmaker to go too terribly amok, which is exactly the problem. The movie plods along covering all the bases but taking no risks, with absolutely no idea what it’s supposed to be.
The trailer makes it look like an action movie, which it isn’t, any more than Schindler’s List is an action movie. The first third of Defiance, in fact, could almost have been adapted for the stage with three changes of scenery. Nor is it a love story, notwithstanding the brothers’ tender pairings-off with common law “forest wives.” Nor does the movie make any weighty philosophical enquiries into the nature of war, violence, revenge, any of that stuff. These things surface from time to time, but one can almost imagine the methodical Zwick ticking them off a giant checklist and moving on to the next item, too literal or just plain calculating a filmmaker to realize there’s more to it, or too timorous to commit to anything in particular.
In this light, what’s most striking about Defiance—for me, really the only striking thing about Defiance—is how it repeatedly evokes another, vastly superior movie about the same general subject, Elem Klimov’s Come and See, without taking a single lesson from it. Klimov’s 1985 movie is largely unknown in the United States but reportedly a favorite of Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, both of whom, not coincidentally, have won almost universal praise for their own high-profile war-is-hell movies in the last decade.
In both Defiance and Saving Private Ryan, there is a scene where a soldier temporarily deafened by a shell blast gazes stunned at the horror unfolding all around him. Spielberg’s is clearly an homage to Come and See, although one gets the impression Zwick only lifted his from Spielberg and not the original. Still, there’s a remarkable physical resemblance between the actor playing the youngest of the brothers in Defiance and the lead actor in Come and See, a boy of 10 or so who looks like a wizened old man by the end of the movie. In Defiance the boy is stunned into silence by what he’s seen and allowed a sort of convalescence for the rest of the film. There is no such respite for the shell-shocked protagonist in Klimov’s movie, where every terrifying second is filtered through his point of view. Defiance has none of Come and See’s hallucinatory terror, none of its handheld fluidity: like running around a Breugel scene with SS troops tossing children into barns over here and manhandling young women onto moving trucks over there. No one scene that even comes close to the blind, bedridden grandmother left in the middle of the burning village, her expression completely inscrutable.
In any event, director Zwick is not trying to make a Come and See. He’s trying to make a war movie with action scenes and a few romantic subplots and a little cathartic revenge and a feel-good ending. In other words, the kind of war movie most people probably prefer, and the kind Hollywood traditionally deals in. But it’s got no momentum, nothing going for it except the—yawn—true story (Klimov’s wasn’t a “true story,” except in the sense that the Germans killed a quarter of a million Belorussians and liquidated at least 628 villages similar to the one in Come and See) and a handful of strong performances. The dialogue is old hat, all of it, except for the novelty of Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber speaking Russian from time to time. Craig is solid as Tuvia Bielski, the oldest brother and de facto commune leader. Schreiber is equally solid as a hotheaded younger brother who only wants to kill Nazis, but his performance is necessarily more theatrical, and the two performances lack some necessary harmony. The accents actually aren’t so bad.
The movie isn’t as terrible as I’m making it out to be, just dull and workmanlike as a result of indecision. It also lacks the extra dimension of involving the enemy somehow. Saving Private Ryan has its sympathetic German prisoner. Schindler’s List spends lots of time with Ralph Fiennes’s sadistic work-camp commandant. A more abstract approach in Tarkovsky’s Ivan made the Germans a memorably strange and shadowy presence, literally shrouded in mist the whole time. The only German we see up close in Defiance is a great blond beast of a prisoner who pleads that he has a wife and two kids. “So did I!” someone yells, and the women fall on the prisoner with rifle butts.
And because it’s based on a true story, Defiance ends with the inevitable series of where-are-they-now title cards explaining what happened to everybody afterwards. I do not suffer this nonsense gladly. It encourages laziness, just for starters. Movies, perhaps war movies most of all, should say “Come and see,” not “Here you go.”