Colonel Kurtz's famously declares “The horror!” to describe the tragedy of human conflict at the end of the Vietnam War film “Apocalypse Now.” If Kurtz were around at the end of the new World War II film “Defiance,” he might modify his proclamation to “The inconvenience!” or “The minor chagrin!” to describe this story about four Jewish brothers in Belarus who help a group of Jews wait out the war in a forest.
The brothers are Zus and Tuvia Bielski (Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig) and their younger siblings (Jamie Bell and George MacKay), whose parents have been murdered by Nazi collaborators, leading them to a forest hideout where they ultimately take on the burden of other Jews who've escaped there. After some initial success getting everyone organized, Zus runs off to join a nearby Red Army regiment while Tuvia stays behind to run the camp.
“Defiance” only concerns itself with a small portion of their tale. Yet it's meandering and vague enough that it may only dawn on the viewer late in the movie that, though we are told this is “A True Story,” most of what happens feels wrong.
“Defiance” was co-produced, co-written and directed by Edward Zwick, whose fondness for larger-than-life melodrama doesn't serve him well here. The real Bielskis did most of the impressive things in the movie and more, but Zwick, his Hollywood instincts at full bore, can't help tarting things up with lovemaking and glamorous cinematography while glossing over the day-to-day heroics of eking out an existence. The same impulses that gave us Brad Pitt wrestling a bear in “Legends of the Fall” have the brothers Bielski facing down German tanks by the end of the picture. It may have happened, but not like this.
Zwick, as was well evident before this film, is the kind of filmmaker whom propagandists like the Nazis would have loved. He wants his characters robust and sexually charged, no matter their circumstances. If people have to starve, they can still look beautiful doing it. And when a gorgeous white horse must be shot for food, no one must ask what the strapping beast itself had been eating.
True empathy requires more than realism, though. It requires understood feelings. “Defiance” pretends to empathize, but it's hell-bent on action and emotional pyrotechnics. (R) 137 min. HHIII S