Although one wishes it were a better and more artful movie, a movie less bogged down in Hollywood cliches, Defiance is an important film in its exposing of revelations long hidden under rocks in the history we thought we knew. Director Edward (Glory, Blood Diamond) Zwick’s film tells the tale of the Jewish Bielski brothers, accidental heroes who hunkered down and railed against a potentially gruesome fate. During the particularly brutal incursion of the Nazis into Byelorussia in 1941, the brothers (played here by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) found themselves in charge of a growing and nomadic group of Jews hiding out in the forest and fighting the Germans with cunning and unflinching vigor. So much for the notion, supported by many Holocaust films, of WWII-era Jewry being oppressed and defenseless. “Jews don’t know how to drink, and Jews don’t know how to fight,” a character in the forest settlement says at one point, citing a stereotype. But both occur with regularity in this true story.
In the grand sweep of Nazi terror, the Russian chapter during WWII has only occasionally been retold on the big screen, ranging from the graphic and uniquely harrowing boy’s-eye view of Elem Klimov’s Come and See, and the more literary and darkly comic roundabout of Everything Is Illuminated (directed, incidentally, by Schreiber). Craig may be best known now as the New 007, but he’s a fine actor beyond the Bond brawn, as he shows in this role, as the quiet, firm-jawed reckoning force, assuming his expanding responsibility for protecting and somehow feeding a mobile village of displaced Jews. Along the way, the forest encampment becomes a metaphor for nomadic peoples and a microcosm of a society in which power struggles occur and human frailties and frictions prevail. Still, as he says, “Our revenge is to live.” And they did, against some ominous odds. The inspiring story itself propels this film even when its dramatic pulse sags, pulled down by show-biz formula.