Despite the glut of Holocaust movies this season, including "Valkyrie," "The Reader," and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," no one can accuse them of being thematically alike. Now comes "Defiance," a never-before-filmed story of Jewish survival directed by Edward Zwick in big, bold, frankly old-fashioned Hollywood high style.
Based on a 1993 book by historian Nechama Tec, it focuses on three brothers, the Bielskis – Tuvia (Daniel Craig), a thief and smuggler who has been in hiding since 1941 when the Nazis wiped out the community where his family farmed; Zus (Liev Schreiber), a troublemaker even more violence prone than Tuvia; and Asael (Jamie Bell), who, compared with his siblings, is like a babe-in-the-Belarus woods.
Those woods are both the battlefront and the haven for what gradually, under Tuvia's command, becomes a self-sustaining ragtag detachment of Jewish civilians whom he must eventually lead to safety. The intellectuals in this community are looked down upon by the Bielskis because they lack survivalist skills – it's a neat reversal of the usual emphasis in Jewish-themed dramas on the primacy of the scholar.
Eventually, after a violent fight between Tuvia and Zus that, like much in "Defiance," is almost biblical in its implications, Zus breaks away from the encampment and sides with Soviet partisans aligned with the Red Army. Ultimately, 50 Jews died, 1,200 were saved – by other Jews.
It's a heroic story, and Zwick frames it rather too strenuously as an antidote to the generic Holocaust stories of Jewish passivity and martyrdom. And yet, as a piece of historical redress, a great service has been done in bringing this narrative to the screen. (Zwick, who previously directed such square-jawed socially-conscious entertainments as "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond," collaborated with Clayton Frohman on the screenplay.) It satisfies an undeniable need to see Jewish fighters during the Holocaust not only resist, as in dramatizations of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, but prevail. When Tuvia, early on, kills the local police chief who murdered his father, his revenge is so visceral that, even when he later renounces it and states that "our revenge is to live," you can't shake off the blood lust thickening the damp, chill air.
Herein lies the difficulty with "Defiance," which is brought home in a later sequence when Jews set upon a Nazi and pummel him to death. The scene is shocking, but lacks the layers of valor and revulsion that would have made it a far more ambiguously horrifying event. Whatever Zwick intends in his more high-minded moments, "Defiance" is forthrightly a rallying cry for Jewish retribution. The message is: To survive, one must kill.
A more complexly thoughtful film might have followed this logic into byways far darker than Zwick explores. (For all its faults, "Munich" did just that, though it overcorrected.) Whenever "Defiance" threatens to become not only dramatically but philosophically disturbing, it pulls back into the safety zone of conventional heroics – albeit enacted by unconventional, almost feral, heroes. Too much is spelled out for us, too many speeches have a stentorian heft. Do we really need to hear Tuvia announce, Moses-like, that his communal goal is to "live free, like human beings, for as long as we can"?
Although the decision to have the actors speak in Slavic accents is regrettable, both Craig and Schreiber triumph over them. Craig has been criticized for being miscast, but I no more felt that way about him here than I did in "Munich," where he played a Mossad assassin. His opaqueness actually works better for him here than it did as 007 in "Quantum of Solace," where he seemed lobotomized. He's a powerful presence both in repose and in action. Schreiber incarnates the physicality of his character to such a degree that, when that fraternal fight erupts, I feared not for Tuvia but for Craig.
To call a movie these days old-fashioned is not such a bad thing – not when you see what most newfangled movies are like. Zwick's best movie, "Glory," about the first unit of black Civil War soldiers, was a solid example of how history and Hollywood could successfully coalesce. "Defiance" strains to be a better, a more "important" movie than it actually is, but in this era of "dark" superheroes, here are a pair of ordinary mortals who could give Iron Man a run for his money. Grade: B (Rated R for violence and language.)