As I was leaving a critic's only screening of "Defiance" just before the holidays, one overwhelming thought entered my mind..."What's the big deal?"
You have to understand that "Defiance," based upon the true story of Tuvia Bielski's (Daniel Craig) rescue of over 1,000 Jews during World War II, was intended as Oscar bait.
Directed and co-written by Edward Zwick ("Blood Diamond," "The Last Samurai"), "Defiance" tells the story of how Tuvia led what became a community of Jews into the Naliboki Forest where they would build a sort of Jerusalem away from the clutches of the Nazi's. Tuvia was joined in his endeavor by his more hotheaded brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell).
Everything about "Defiance" screams out "I want an Oscar."
As the leader with a checkered past, Craig shows off both his action hero chops, his sensitive side and a nifty little Belorussian accent that occasionally wavers.
Zwick tries his darndest to make "Defiance" have the look and feel of an Oscar-level film. On more than one occasion, he juxtaposes scenes of action and drama with scenes of serenity and the sublime.
Too often, "Defiance" falls back on formula. It seems a little convenient, for example, that one brother renounces violent revenge, one brother embraces it and one brother falls squarely in the middle.
It seems just a tad convenient that the community that is formed in the woods includes a series of cliche'd characters such as the elder intellectual, the power-seeking rebel, religious leaders, fighters and, yes, even the perfect woods wives for each of the brothers.
Filmed on location in Lithuania, "Defiance" benefits greatly from Eduardo Serra's lensing and a stellar, complementary original score from James Newton Howard that includes violin work from virtuoso Joshua Bell.
In the first half of "Defiance," all seems well. The leading characters are well defined, the community is growing and the story unfolds of this growing group of resisters. By the film's second half, however, "Defiance" begins to downward spiral a bit into the predictable plot points of surviving a horrible winter, community squabbles, civil strife and, of course, the inevitable chase scene once the Nazis figure out where Bielski's Partisans are located.
While most of "Defiance" is spoken in English, the cast utilizes a sort of blue-collar Slavic dialect throughout and, on occasion, Zwick inexplicably has them speaking in Russian. While this isn't a huge detriment to the film, it does occasionally distract as one is noticing the dialect rather than the action onscreen.
In addition to the strong performances of Craig and Schreiber, Jamie Bell gives his strongest performance since his debut in "Billy Elliott" and Alexa Davalos, Iben Hjejle and Martin Hancock all shine in supporting, though largely undeveloped roles.
While "Defiance" was intended as Oscar bait, it falls short of meriting such attention. This said, it's still a far better examination of the Nazi era than the more publicized "Valkyrie."
"Defiance" is a good film, but I can sure tell that director Edward Zwick was trying to make a great one.