Saturday, January 17, 2009

Review: "Defiance"

It’s a credit to Daniel Craig’s skills as an actor that we never once think of James Bond while watching the World War II drama “Defiance.”

As Tuvia Bielski, the leader of a group of renegade Jews who fled from and fought the Nazis in what today is Belarus, Craig is defiant but not cocky. There’s no trace of the brutally cold and efficient British super agent he’s portrayed in two Bond films.

With the exception of Sean Connery, none of the actors who portrayed James Bond had much of a career once their days behind a Walther PPK ended. So it’s pleasing to know that top-notch war dramas and other fare like this still lie in front of Craig, no matter how long his run as Bond.

“Defiance” is one of those “based on a true story” movie, which means the larger historical fact is accepted, but many of the details are up for debate.
In a brief Google search about the Bielski Partisans, I learn that more than 1,000 Jews built a fairly substantial settlement deep in the forests of Belarus, including a school, hospital and even a jail. They had a herd of cows to keep them fed. That’s a lot more comfy than the crude log shacks shown in the movie, with Tuvia’s people subsisting at barely above starvation level, and nearly freezing to death in the winter.

And who knows if Tuvia and his brother Zus were really rivals, a la Cain and Abel, for control of the group? But that’s the central conflict of the film, and the tension between Craig and Liev Schreiber, as Zus, is compelling.

Zus is the headstrong brother who follows the Old Testament: “Blood for blood.” He wants to take the fight to the Germans, and summarily execute any collaborators who turned Jews over to the Nazis.

But Tuvia’s goal is merely to survive, and save as many Jewish lives as he can. With the help of a few intellectual types, he wants to build a semblance of a community, even as the Germans vie for their extinction. “We may be hunted like animals, but we will not behave like animals.”

“Defiance” is directed by Edward Zwick (“Glory,” “The Last Samurai”) who co-wrote the script with Clayton Frohman based on the book by Nechama Tec. Zwick’s a master at bringing historical dramas to full-blooded life, and does so again here.

What makes Tuvia interesting is that he’s far from perfect. He makes bad judgment calls, lets a rogue element within the community go too far for too long, and overlooks some despicable behavior. (At one point, a captured German soldier is pummeled to death by a revengeful mob.) During one critical battle, he completely freezes, and it’s up to his younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell) to carry the day.

Could you imagine James Bond choking up, trembling and indecisive while troops march down on his flock? But Craig’s looking to build a character, not a star persona based on Bond. It’s one of many reasons why “Defiance” stands tall.

3.5 stars out of four

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