Lately, Liev Schreiber is all about sibling rivalry. In Wolverine his Sabertooth is pissy about the attention paid to his younger brother, Hugh Jackman. Now, in Defiance, he’s pissy about the attention paid to his older brother, Daniel Craig. Neither movie is particularly great, but Craig and Schreiber, help propel Defiance into something worth watching.
The Defiance DVD box tries to convince you that the movie is something it is not. The pictures of stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell carrying guns with bombs exploding in the background and narrative on the back stating that they play real-life refugee Jews in WWII who turn into “powerful freedom fighters” makes you think you’re gonna see a whole lotta’ ass kickin’. Actually, ass kickin’ takes a backseat to the humanity and emotional response to war and devastation felt by Eastern European Jews, which isn’t a bad thing, there’s just a little too much of it. Director Edward Zwick lets the film sag in the middle, but still provides a decent old fashion hero story.
Based on a true story, Craig, Schreiber, and Bell play Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Belski. The brothers are peasant farmers (and maybe smugglers) in Belarus when the Nazis invade. The local police helps the SS round up or kill the local Jews, including the Belski’s parents. That forces them to flee into the surrounding forest where more and more Jews flock to the Belski camp. Tuvia is a reluctant leader, but he feels a sense of responsibility for his fellow refugees. Zus only wants revenge and the conflict between the brothers drives the film.
Zus ultimately joins up with a Soviet army until while Tuvia and Asael try to keep the refugees alive in various forest camps. Zwick and his technical crew certainly do a great job in making you feel the loneliness and desolation of living in the forest in winter with occasional police or army patrols stumbling on their site and requiring that they move somewhere else. All three leads bring so much inner strength to their roles, they make up for what can only be described as an overly-long focus on everyone’s feelings. For example, Asael meets a girl…then Zus meets a girl…then Tuvia meets a girl. Zwick could have tightened things up considerably and made a tighter and more powerful film.
As it is, though, the movie shares many traits with Zwick’s former war film triumph, Glory. Strong performances by the leads, a dramatic score (James Newton Howard nabbed the movie’s only Academy Award nomination), technically perfect without being overblown battle scenes, and a reliance on character rather than pyrotechnics to tell the story. It falls short of meeting the high standard set by the Civil War film, but Schreiber and Craig are worth watching and this is likely a story you’ve never heard before.
The DVD box doesn’t tell you the whole story of Defiance. In fact, most battle scenes result in the heroes running away with their community of refugees to live another day. That’s a story that doesn’t often get told and Zwick takes too long to tell it, but it’s worth watching.
While it’s never going to be considered a classic, Defiance is a very nice film to look at. The DVD release will not be able to compete with Blu-ray, but the transfer is beautiful and does justice to the location shooting in Lithuania.
The DVD hits the basics on this release, which is about all that can be expected since it was received by both critics and the paying public with a big shrug upon its theatrical release. Director/co-writer Edward Zwick knocks out a serviceable commentary. He has a very professorial way of speaking. That’s a nice way of saying he’s a little boring, but he does give a lot of information, just not in a fun or energetic way.
The disc also contains a 26 minute making-of featurette called “Return to the Forest: The Making of Defiance.” It’s nothing special, but it is comprehensive and features interviews with everyone about almost everything. Although they do chat with some minor characters a bit more than you would expect.
While the making-of featurette does talk about the real events that form the basis of the movie, a second featurette, “Children of the Otriad: The Families Speak,” focuses on the real Bielski brothers through recollections of their children and grandchildren. The descendents were all born and grew up in the United States. They give some family history and discuss what they remember of Tuvia and Zus after they moved to the United States after the war. They are also shown visiting the set. It is pretty interesting to hear about the real people and even see some home movies of the men in their later years, but it does make you wonder why actual survivors weren’t interviewed about their experiences. Plus, one of the Bielski grandchildren uses the segment to push a documentary she’s making about the family, which makes it come across as an infomercial.
The only other extra on the DVD is a brief slideshow of pictures of some of the survivors taken by Zwick. It lasts about two minutes and again begs the question as to why they didn’t put a few interviews on film to get a real sense of how it was living in the forest. While Zwick has some definite weaknesses as a filmmaker, including his inability to reign in his own good intentions, this is a good movie and if you can stick with it through the long middle, you’ll probably enjoy it.