starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos
screenplay by Edward Zwick & Clay Frohman
directed by Edward Zwick
by Walter Chaw It's finally happened: Red Dawn with Russian Jews. It's not so much unthinkable as inevitable after the fact. You could go your whole life without conjuring something so perverse; it's the kind of thing "South Park" might have done at a quarter the budget, with thrice the ingenuity, and without the star power of über-studs Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber making a pretty convincing play for inclusion in the bad accent hall of fame. When Craig, as heroic bandit Tuvia Bielski, delivers his St. Crispian's Day speech in half-pidgin/half-Queen's English ("Uff vee shut die? Tlyin to liff? At least we die like human beings!") as director Ed Zwick ladles on the Fiddler on the Roof score and we get reaction shots of a Dickensian urchin all dirt and eyes, what choice do we have but to harden our hearts and wonder how it is that every "true story" run through this prestige mill ends up exactly the same grain. The moment when Tuvia and his woodsman brother Zus (Schreiber) take on the responsibility of two fine young lasses at the behest of a set-upon farm family, however, is the moment that it clicks that this piece of macho bullroar is a direct blood descendant of John Milius's stupidest movie of 1984. There but for the grace of Swayze and Sheen goes Defiance--a film so bad that it's not only worse than Red Dawn, but worse because instead of positing an imaginary occupation of heartland America, it sets itself smack dab in the middle of the Nazi occupation of Belorussia circa 1941--suggesting in the process that while it's not true there was no Jewish resistance in WWII, it might be true that the reason so many were killed is because they weren't as macho as Tuvia and Zus. Kind of a sticky wicket, that.
There're piquant, doomed romances in a time of war in here, you bet, and naturally there are also strange, anachronistic conversations about feminism and the wielding of weapons, though sadly there's not a scene where someone forces someone else to drink deer blood and piss in a radiator. There's plenty of woods and guerrilla warfare as our heroes learn how to use their weapons and refine their tactics, as well as plenty of bumbling Nazi sympathizers acting like clay pigeons for our heroes' stirring development. What there's not a lot of is a genuine consideration of what it means when a Jewish intellectual marvels, as he's hammering a nail, how he hasn't read a book in months. There's a collision in here somewhere between the well-dressed, uprooted higher classes materializing the mulch-brown forest like spirits of the wood and the rough-and-tumble Bielskis (there's also a younger brother, Asael (Jamie Bell)) who take a nation under their wing, lead them through the wilderness ("Szo! You are Moses!"), and perhaps die right when they're about to glimpse the Promised Land. Shy of Biblical parable, the schism between brothers, the emergence of saviours and prophets from unlikely origins, and the questioning of philosophies as they pertain to vengeance, thievery, and (why not) defiance serve not as a basis for moral questioning, but as an opportunity to play sad, ethnic music and set up tired plotlines and resolutions. I love the trio of actors at the centre of this movie--enough that their participation in this trainwreck elevates it for me into a camp, Road House curiosity. A meeting between Tuvia and village elders who can't comprehend the machineries of the Holocaust plays as meaningfully and affectingly as the edict against dancing in Footloose. Indiana Jones's "Nazis, I hate these guys" suddenly seems like Elie Weisel.
A wonderful companion piece to Blindness, this saga of a world restructured along new lines is as blinkered and embarrassing as Zwick's Blood Diamond and, to some extent, Glory. Not content with one rousing speech, Tuvia delivers several of them--one from astride a white horse, of course--that ends with a little boy marvelling, "He iss...a JEW?" which means...what? Does it mean that Jews don't recognize masculine archetypes because they're gentrified pussies ripe for the plucking? Or does it mean that Zwick believes the audience for this film needs to be disabused of the notion that all Jews went softly into the dark night? Is he right? On what score is he right? It's not looking good for Russian Jewry either way. It's not looking good for collectivism, either, as Zwick and Defiance find ways to re-fight the Cold War even as they polish off WWII, mistaking something for something else as characters die noble deaths with thanks to Tuvia on their lips, their transformation from effete, bookish intellectual to heroic meatbag complete. And how does it all end? It ends with end titles that elucidate the fate of these mythological action figures and their place in history in a very Schindler's List kind of way. There's nothing valuable about a movie that turns the desperate actions of resourceful men in an impossible situation into a slotted formula war epic, especially one that takes something like Red Dawn as its template (or was it vice versa? What does it matter, now?)--especially one that gives a remorseless piece of shit like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a run for most nauseating and hilarious Holocaust film of the year. Originally published: January 2, 2009.