Movie Review: "Defiance" Resurrects a Little-Known Story of Courage in WWII

Daniel Craig, right, with Jamie Bell as brother Asael, is charismatic as Tuvia Bielski, the real-life leader of a Jewish resistance group in World War II.
Daniel Craig, right, with Jamie Bell as brother Asael, is charismatic as Tuvia Bielski, the real-life leader of a Jewish resistance group in World War II. (Karen Ballard - AP)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

"Jews don't fight."

"These Jews do."

It's impossible to watch "Defiance" without experiencing a vicarious thrill of resistance and revenge. Edward Zwick's often-stirring movie dramatizes the true story of Zus and Tuvia Bielski (Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig), Polish Jews who eluded their Nazi captors during World War II in what is now Belarus. With a younger brother, the Bielskis helped their fellow Jews escape the German SS and their collaborators by hiding in a forest and joining forces with the Red Army.

"Defiance" chronicles the beginning of the Bielskis' two-year sojourn, when Tuvia and Zus disagreed over tactics, with the former building a proto-kibbutz in the woods and the latter fighting more actively with the Soviets. With its internal arguments over ethics and its old-fashioned adventure story of men fighting for their own survival, "Defiance" bears an interesting, if conventional, resemblance to "Che," the story of another two-year journey that also opens today.

Zwick ("Glory," "The Last Samurai") has perfected the art of marrying bombastic action, aestheticized violence and historical import, and he effectively marshals all three to bring this little-known and genuinely amazing story to life. He's helped enormously by his two lead actors, who tackle their respective roles with gusto and muscularity. As Tuvia, who's sort of a cross between Moses and Henry V at Agincourt, Craig takes what could be a too-good-to-be-true character and scruffs him up a little, giving him a slightly thuggish scowl. Schreiber seems born to play the more pugnacious Zus, whose previous life as a local ne'er-do-well may not be entirely spelled out but is made perfectly clear nonetheless. These two charismatic leads are joined by an able supporting cast that includes Jamie Bell as young Asael Bielski and the wonderful Mia Wasikowska (the young gymnast from "In Treatment").

If "Defiance" has its share of movie moments (too-perfect lighting, too-eloquent speeches, too-tidy fight scenes) that's because Zwick knows how to bring mainstream Hollywood values to bear on what could be forgotten or marginalized histories. Here, viewers are treated to the cathartic pleasures of watching a band of Jewish outlaws not only gun down their Nazi oppressors, but also survive to build something, in this case a community that went on to create its own hospital, theater and synagogue in the woods. "Defiance" gives voice to the enduring truth that one isn't defined by oppression but by one's response to it. The Bielskis also embody a slightly more ambiguous fact that, for righteousness to prevail, sometimes it helps to have a little larceny in your heart.

Defiance (137 minutes, in Russian, Yiddish and English with subtitles, at area theaters) is rated R for violence and profanity.

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