To follow up on my MILK post, where I went in expecting a masterpiece and found it sometimes missed the mark, I went into DEFIANCE with no expectations and actually ended up pretty much liking it, though it’s no masterpiece either and in fact misses that mark by a lot more than MILK does.
It is though another attempt to create an epic movie out of some real history, like MILK attempts to do. But director and co-screenwriter Edward Zwick doesn’t take the kinds of artistic risks or attempt to be as original in his filmmaking as Gus Van Sant does in MILK.
Like MILK (and so many other “based on a true story” historic films) DEFIANCE opens with actual historic footage, in this case of the persecution and execution of Jews by the Nazis. But unlike Van Sant, who uses historic footage throughout MILK, in ways that are both successful and not, Zwick immediately melds the opening historically real footage into the movie realm (by going from black and white to color in a scene that mimics the historic footage but is obviously not), as is usually the case with this technique.
It’s standard Hollywood moviemaking, and continues to be throughout, which, as I said, makes it less adventurous artistically or creatively original, but does help make it predictably satisfying for the usual audience expectations.
In fact where MILK tries to capture something that’s really never been seen in a film before—at least not as Van Sant does it—DEFIANCE borrows from all kinds of classic films about armed conflict and power struggles and Nazi oppression, with scenes reminiscent of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (the film adaptation), THE GODFATHER, SCHINDLER’S LIST etc.
It’s also full of filmic clichés and stereotypes and plot predictability, and yet it works. Mainly because it is a triumphant story in an otherwise unrelenting historic tragedy. And because despite the predictable plot points and fictionalized realities to conform to movie tropes, there are enough dramatic turns, even if expected, and scenes with acting and storyline that resonate with what we’re hoping for to keep us engaged if not surprised.
Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) plays the lead and has moments of fine acting and moments of not so fine acting. The same goes for his co-lead Live Schreiber. While the actor who plays their little brother, Jamie Bell (who has become a man since starring in Billy Elliot but still has a boyish screen presence) never falters, despite whatever clichéd line or action he’s being asked to perform.
The story itself, unknown to me and I suspect many who will see this movie, is what makes it so satisfying. A band of Jewish refugees surviving in the forrest while being hunted by Nazis and their Belarussian collaborators.
It’s such a compelling story that it works despite its shortcomings, including the strange accents (the movie uses the device of having Belarussian, I assume, spoken naturally with English subtitles, but the more secret language of the Jews (I assume Yiddish?) spoken in accented English that sometimes sounds Polish, sometimes Russian, sometimes American and in Craig’s case, sometimes British).
Like MILK, it’s worth seeing, though for entirely different reasons. Harvey Milk’s story most of us know, it’s the risk taking movie making, including the acting, that makes MILK worth seeing. It’s the opposite for DEFIANCE, the movie making is clichéd and predictable, but the story is uniquely compelling and worth savoring.