Lowdown: The story of a successful group of Jewish partisans living under Nazi occupation.
Director Edward Zwick's specialty is epic tales of adventure, things like Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai. In general I like his achievements and I think they're good movies. Defiance is yet another one of tales of epic proportions, and like Zwick's Glory it is also based on a true story. However, unlike most of the Zwick films I've watched so far, Defiance cannot be said to be a good film.
Defiance tells the story of the two Bielski brothers from Belarus, Tuvia and Zus (portrayed respectively by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber). As the Nazis invaded the USSR during World War 2, their Death Squads set themselves busy rounding up Jews and killing them in various ingenius ways (those were the days before the gas chambers and the more production line like organized genocides). The two Bielskis escaped dying, but most of their family and acquaintances didn't fare so well. The brothers were powerful and self sufficient enough to escape into Belarus' woods, sustain themselves and a growing number of Jewish refugees that flocked to their shelter, and eventually even fight the Nazis back a bit.
Although the core of Defiance's story is true and although I have heard of the Bielskis before, I am not in a position to say how real the film's events are. What I can say is that Craig and Schreiber look nothing alike although the film pits them as brothers who see contradicting ways for managing their fate, thus causing some distraction. Tuvia sees the manifestation of Jewish defiance in survival, and thus sets to accommodate for shelter and food to as many refugees as he can find; Zus, on the other hand, prefers active retaliation, and sees all the refugees as a burden in the way of achieving that goal. Defiance is thus made of a collection of scenes depicting the struggles of the Bielski partisans in the face of insurmountable odds while revolving around the conflict between the brothers. But the problem there is that despite the mighty story it has to say, Defiance still feels like a collection of scenes as opposed to a cohesive epic of the usual Zwick type.
Another problem with Defiance is that it tries to tell the story through a modern pair of eyes with some politically correct standards. For example, there are hints here and there that the women in the Bielski group of partisans have had specific roles in satisfying the men's sexual needs; yet Defiance never goes into a discussion there. Which is a pity, in my view, because the way I see it the most interesting thing out of the Defiance story is the way the brothers managed to create some sort of a civilization under one of the most uncivilized circumstances in recorded history; yet instead of exploring that, the film prefers to focus on random acts of heroism instead.
Best scene: Zus discovers that even though the Russian army likes his partisans' fighting skills, it still treats Jews as scum - not much unlike the Nazis.
Technical assessment: The movie rental shop that I frequent only stocks Defiance in the form of DVDs rather than my preferred Blu-rays. After watching the DVD I know why: this is one of the worst transfers of A grade films I have ever encountered. The picture is very compressed and lacking in detail, and the sound is so bad you feel like you're listening to a film playing next door rather than your home theater. Dialog, it seems, is the main victim there. The DVD's credits imply it was mastered in Australia, so I dearly hope other nationalities get the privilege of watching better forms of Defiance. As it is, the DVD's poor quality severely hinders the Defiance experience.
Overall: A great story that's not told half as well as it should. Yet it's still a great story, so I'm giving it 3 out of 5 stars.