'Defiance' and 'Waltz with Bashir'

As Israel attacks Gaza, Hollywood offers Jews fighting Nazis.

By Steve Burgess 16 Jan 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess has bolted the movie theatres, skipped town, and will be filing dispatches from Asia over the next few weeks.

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Craig as Tuvia Bielski in 'Defiance.'

Whatever your opinion of director Edward Zwick's Defiance, one thing is for sure -- many of the responses it inspires will have little to do with the quality of the movie itself. Current headlines being what they are, a movie about Jews with guns is bound to start a proxy fight.

Check out the message boards at imdb.com where Defiance has predictably become the jumping-off point for numerous arguments about Gaza, not to mention a depressing load of anti-Semitic bilge. Safe to say the good folks at Paramount didn't have this in mind when they green-lighted an inspiring true-life tale of potential Holocaust victims who fought back.

Craig can't miss

Based on a true story, Defiance stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as the Bielski brothers, a couple of smugglers from the Polish border regions who take to the forest after the Nazis begin slaughtering local Jews, their father included.

Other stragglers coalesce around the brothers who soon find themselves the reluctant providers for a growing community of forest fugitives. Tuvia Bielski (Craig) takes to his new role. Brother Zus (Schreiber) derisively calls him "Moses" and, after a serious fraternal brawl, leaves to join Russian partisans. Tuvia struggles to feed the wandering tribe in a cold winter, put down internal insurrections, and fight encroaching Nazis, too.

Unlike his Tom Cruise-starring historical epic The Last Samurai, Zwick is blessed here with a believable lead. Daniel Craig has become that rare thing, a mega-star who does not lie on top of a period film like a dead whale. Too bad they didn't sign him for Valkyrie as well.

They fought back

The real-life Bielskis are the subject of no little controversy in modern Poland as historians attempt to determine the precise nature of their activities, particularly their relations with the Soviets. To be fair, Zwick cannot very well delve into matters that even historians cannot agree on. And he does make a point of showing the Bielskis were no angels.

Nonetheless, Defiance is an attempt at that most elusive of genres, the feel-good Holocaust movie. Not the bizarre Life is Beautiful kind, but the kind that fulfills the silent wish of so many documentary viewers over the years to see Jews fighting back against the Nazi evil. The Bielskis are a legitimate subject for such a film -- the brothers really did preserve hundreds of lives and wreak serious havoc on their German enemies.

'Waltz with Bashir': timely

But writer/director Zwick spreads a predictable sheen of sentimentality, myth-making and dramatic license on his true-life tale. The action-packed climax in particular has a certain Where Eagles Dare flavour. True-life events they may be, but Defiance feels like Hollywood.

While current events may work against the marketing of Defiance, it is a different story for Waltz with Bashir. Ari Folman's acclaimed animated film about the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, told from a soldier's point of view, now seems the timeliest of films. Too bad its time may have passed -- as of this writing it had finished a brief run at the Ridge. Let's hope it returns.

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