Blu-ray Review: Defiance (2009)

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You know you have a major problem at the screenwriting stage when you realize that even some of the most renowned film critics around the globe can't even get the facts straight on just how many Bielski brothers there were in the film Defiance.

In most reviews, it's stated that there are three and while primarily the film centers on the trio played by Daniel Craig as the oldest brother Tuvia, Liev Schreiber (who gives the film's greatest performance as Zus) and the sweet, angelic faced Jamie Bell as Asael-- indeed if you pay close enough attention you'll ascertain that there's a fourth brother via the little seen youngest named Aron (played by George MacKay which I just confirmed on IMDb).

The fact that we don't know this right off the bat would normally be a cause for concern in any movie but it's far more detrimental in the case of Edward Zwick's well-intentioned Defiance which chronicles the incredibly inspiring and shockingly untold true story of the Bielski created Jewish refuge village in the Belorussian forests where they helped save the lives of over a thousand Jews from Nazi oppressors during World War II.

Moreover, further cause for alarm surrounds the development of the characters about whom I realized about midway through the film I knew very little if anything about. Luckily for Zwick, the commanding presences of the actors who embody the roles are so convincing (speaking largely in a foreign language throughout!) that they shield the overwhelmingly flawed cliches of an inarticulate screenplay.

Of course I'm over-simplifying a bit regarding the absence of character information but it's extremely sparse although on the most basic level, each one is given a goal or an actorly like "motivation." In the case of these three, they are defined as follows in the most one-dimensional manner as we come to terms with the most nobly heroic brother Tuvia whose patience and willingness to rule with force helped run the refuge village given his refusal to turn away any Jews when food and supplies were scarce.

Likewise, we're presented with Zus's decision for "fight" over flight and join up with the equally anti-semitic Russian soldiers to go kill the Nazis who gunned down his family, and Asael's struggle to remain loyal to both and that's pretty much the size of it for the film's running time.

However, it was only in the must see mini behind-the-scenes featurette that interviewed the living descendants of the Bielski family that I was able to learn (slightly) more about them and it's extremely disappointing since their story is so important and deserved a much better cinematic treatment in the work based on Nechama Tec's book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans.

With a bloated one hundred and thirty six minute running time and otherwise talented Blood Diamond, Glory, and Legends of the Fall director Edward Zwick's tendency to fill his film with too many group dynamic disagreements, a few ineffective love stories (despite the fact that Tuvia's was rooted in truth, Craig is given dialogue even weaker than that from Quantum of Solace), additionally we see way too much brotherly bickering for us to genuinely invested in any storyline since the characters are so thinly drawn.

Missing the more naturalistic and simply emotional grit of Herzog's Vietnam era film about survival against all odds-- Rescue Dawn-- or a better sense of just who we're watching as in other tales from unique World War II Jewish perspectives evidenced in Nowhere in Africa and The Counterfeiters, ultimately Defiance is a work that holds you at arm's length. And it further alienates with manipulative attempts at shocking us into empathy when for a World War II picture it would've normally been there right from the start.

Despite great turns by the lead actors-- especially Liev Schreiber who I kept thinking should've taken a pass at the screenplay given his wonderful adaptation of Everything is Illuminated-- and tremendous production values including that Oscar and Golden Globe nominated score, overall it's a film that's worth seeing just to get the bare minimum background on the Bielski effort but one that in the end is a major let-down.

Furthermore some of the film's recurring arguments of the strong surviving and not the weak as all must contribute and intellectuals are ill-equipped for survival received an intriguing and thought-provoking charge by A.O. Scott in The New York Times of unintentional anti-semitism. As he writes "in setting out to overturn historical stereotypes of Jewish passivity...[the film] ends up affirming them," since he continued that "what the Bielskis did is treated not as the extraordinary, odds-defying feat it was, but rather as an ideal that those who did not survive failed to live up to."

Therefore Scott asserts, it "celebrates strong men (who in real life sought no such glory) at the expense of those whose weakness-- whose inability to fight back, or to stay alive--was not a moral failure but a fact of history," and shouldn't have been presented to the contrary of "making the timidity of the Jews, rather than the barbarity of the Nazis and the vicious opportunism of their allies, a principle cause of the Shoah."

Although admittedly, I didn't leap to these conclusions myself, nonetheless I did notice some discomfort in the treatment of certain characters as well as Zwick's strange vague discussion of "forest wives" by inserting the idea in the script that women "knew what they were there for" but at the same time were forbidden to have a child. Obviously this in itself raised many contradictions and even more questions as to just what exactly the truth was, thus in the end, with so many loose ends involved that many of us still just don't know what to think, it truly reaffirms the major problems in the script and execution.

Aside from that, the Blu-ray technical aspects are excellent with stellar picture definition with a sharp contrast from left to right, other than the necessity to crank up the volume to hear some of the mumbled dialogue. And much to their credit, Paramount admirably fills the disc with high-definition special features as well including the aforementioned mini-documentary that interviews the actual relatives, a Blu-ray only extra on the film's score (featuring Joshua Bell), filmmaker commentary, a making-of featurette and more.

Purposely shot with a lack of heightened color, in the end you could probably get by with a DVD of the film. Yet, I'd definitely suggest previewing it in rental form before making a purchase since ultimately, I ended up both with once again great awe at the talent of Schreiber but also wishing I'd read the book or waited for the documentary that a Bielski relative is currently working on.

Although if the documentary is released, it probably won't benefit from the same marketing campaign or (futile) award season push but at the very least, we'll know-- not just the number of the Bielski brothers-- but fortunately more than just one or two vague descriptions about them as well which helps celebrate them as human beings rather than cardboard heroes.