From Jan ’09 Spotlight: Chicago-born director Ed Zwick cast Denzel Washington in his first Oscar-winning role (in the 1989 film Glory), and he also cast Ken Watanabe (Oscar-nominated for The Last Samurai in 2003) and Djimon Hounsou (Oscar-nominated for Blood Diamond in 2006). So he’s a mensch, but with the exception of his award-winning TV series thirtysomething (starring Ken Olin as “Michael Steadman” and Melanie Mayron as his cousin “Melissa”), Jews have never been his central characters.
In Zwick’s new film Defiance, however, almost all the characters are Jewish, especially the three lead characters: Asael, Tuvia, and Zus Bielski. The Bielski brothers grew up in a remote village in rural Belarus, and they were as blind-sided as all their neighbors when the Germans invaded in 1941. But they quickly sized up the situation, escaped into the forest, and spent the next three years serving as Soviet partisans while simultaneously saving over one thousand Jews.
“There were Jews who resisted the Nazis all over Europe, but this was the only organized group of Jews that rescued other Jews, and this was the most powerful and the most famous group,” screenwriter Clay Frohman told me when I called him in LA. “Old people, children, women, they all would have died without the Bielski brothers.” (See sidebar.)
This subject might not seem appropriate for your typical American multiplex, but after seeing Defiance twice, reading three source books, and chatting with Clay, it’s clear to me that Zwick has done a superb job of crafting a film for everyone, a film with heroic action as well as moral discourse, breathtaking escapes punctuated by genuine romantic interludes.
Thoroughly adept at his craft, Zwick has used his artistic license to find the deepest possible truth beneath the facts. For example, Asael was really the middle brother and Zus was the youngest, but from everything I’ve read, they actually functioned just as shown, a historically significant instance of a whole that became greater than the sum of its parts. Bravo!
Defiance opens here in Chicago on January 16. Reviews of more current films with Jewish themes/content are posted in the “Columns” section of my website: http://www.films42.com/columns/JUFN-5769.asp
Top Photo: Screenwriter Clay Frohman as an extra in Defiance.
Middle Photo: Jamie Bell as “Asael Bielski” with Daniel Craig as “Tuvia Bielski.”
Bottom Photo: Bell and Craig with Liev Schreiber as “Zus Bielski.”
Click HERE to read my chat with Clay Frohman on the JUF Website.
Click here to download my chat with Frohman as a pdf: FrohmanSidebarJUFN