Edward Zwick is clearly the Stanley Kramer of our age. He makes movies with important subjects and themes. He makes well-intentioned, liberal-minded films with visions of Oscar statuettes dancing in his eyes. His style—at least insofar as it can be discerned—is pushy and heavy-handed in a manner that impresses through a kind of intimidation born of weighty subject matter and a tendency toward excessive running times. His latest effort, Defiance, is no different. It defies you not to admire it. In intent, I can go along with that. In execution, not so much.
Zwick and cowriter Clayton Frohman have crafted a screenplay from the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec, which tells the true-life story of the Bielski brothers, who fled Nazi-occupied Poland for the Belarussian forest, taking with them hundreds of other Jews, setting up a commune-like village and helping the Russian resistance fight the Nazis. That’s pretty solid material and a story worth telling. It’s also a story worth telling better than it’s done here, though Zwick can—as usual—be assured that the importance of the story will splash over onto his film, imbuing it with an importance it hasn’t truly earned.
There’s no denying that the film is solidly crafted, but there’s a marked tendency to head for clichés, punctuate them with speechifying, follow them up with action scenes and explosions, while occasionally tossing in artistic touches that tend to feel like grafted-on embellishments. In this last capacity, consider the freedom fighters’ attack on the Nazis that’s played in counterpoint to a Jewish wedding in the woods. Zwick moves back and forth between the two events, finally signaling the action when the groom stomps on the glass, whereupon the sound of the wedding begins to take over the soundtrack as he cuts from battle to wedding and back again. Is it good cinema? Sure it is, and it’s effective (just as similar crosscutting was effective in The Godfather), but does the juxtaposition of the two events actually convey anything? Apart from stressing the difference between two of the brothers—the more peace-minded Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and the hotheaded Zus (Liev Schreiber)—I can’t see it. And the brothers’ differences were already established.
The film’s penchant for clichés is apparent at every turn, but never more so than in its tendency to present the subordinate characters like refugees from a touring company of Fiddler on the Roof—complete with the crafty traditionalist, the socialist intellectual, the marriage-minded maidens etc. Had someone broken into “Sunrise, Sunset,” I wouldn’t have been that surprised. The thing is that this doesn’t necessarily work against the film in terms of playing to the audience—any more than the stock action scenes do. Clichés have undeniable power; that’s how they became clichés in the first place. And there’s much to be said for holding the viewer through well-staged (and they are well-staged) action scenes, even if they’re rife with old-style Errol Flynn picture heroics—with all the improbability that suggests. On this level, Defiance works, but it pays the price by undermining its own sense of importance.
Walking the line between popular entertainment and message picture is always a tricky proposition, and it’s a knack that seems to elude Zwick much of the time. It’s certainly reasonable enough to have his cast affect accents and speak in English for our benefit, since subtitles rarely fare well at the box office. However, it’s an awkward affectation to have those outside the commune speak in other languages with subtitles—unless the late Quentin Crisp’s suspicion that “foreigners speak English when our backs are turned” is actually correct. I remain skeptical.
Still, there are things to admire in Defiance—not the least of which is the story itself—and Zwick’s compulsion to turn an important story into audience-friendly entertainment is much more effective than the strained seriousness of his last film, Blood Diamond (2006), where he insisted on making an action/adventure movie “important.” His efforts will make Defiance play better in many respects, and whatever its failings, the film is undeniably more sincere and gripping than the season’s other fact-based Nazi drama, Valkyrie. Rated R for violence and language.