There's always a temptation for a critic to be glib about Edward Zwick's films - "Glory," "Blood Diamond," "Courage Under Fire" - by mentioning that every few minutes he pounds you with another didactic lesson about what you're watching. But I'm not going to join the crowd. "Defiance" is a heretofore little-known story of the Holocaust that a) is astounding; b) is inspiring, and c) is true.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 through what's now Belorussia, they and their Russian allies - those who'd supported or participated in pogroms against the Jews -- they rounded up every Jew they could find, either killing them there or shipping them to concentration camps. One family of brothers, the Bielskis, who evidently had a a reputation as smugglers and thieves, ran to the Belorussian forest when their parents were killed. The oldest was Tuvia (Daniel Craig), the next was Zus (Liev Schreiber), the third was Asael (Jamie Bell). Soon they took in other Jews who had managed to escape from the Nazis, and a kind of community grew in the forest.
Tuvia was the leader, Zus was more the hothead - I was reminded of the relationship between Michael and Sonny in "The Godfather." But Zwick has given Tuvia and Zus some wonderful scenes of brotherly conflict and love that add complexity to his story; this is the best work I've seen from Liev Schreiber since "A Walk on the Moon," and Daniel Craig, who tends to pose more than act, has a role as the leader of the group that is perfectly suited for him.
Their little community in the forest is constantly pursued by the Germans, and yet they must come out to get food from the farmers nearby. No one will simply give it to them, and so everyone must contribute their jewelry, their watches, whatever they may have in order to buy the food; they are Jews, after all.
The group fights, little by little picking up arms and ammunition from the Germans they kill. Zus goes off to join a Russian Partisan brigade. There are conflicts, the men take what are called 'forest wives' for the duration, although Asrael does find someone to marry.
The story of "Defiance" is so unexpected, coming sixty years after the war, that it has a greater impact than had it been known at the time. Although Zwick has not made any mistakes in directing or writing, he somehow makes a great story seem just a bit underwhelming. There is in fact a truly great film lurking somewhere in "Defiance;" but he hasn't quite let it out.