Holiday Movies, Pre-Reviewed, Reviewed: Defiance (or, “… and Every Cut Is a Lie”)

by |
12/29/2008 10:00 AM |

[In the L’s Holiday Gift Guide Issue, we presented a Holiday Film Preview of sorts: Reviews of Movies We Haven’t Seen, banking on the predictability of the holiday-movie industrial complex, and also our own tendency to review movies before seeing them. So let’s see how we did. Here, I, who wrote the one on Defiance, compare my preview to my actual response.]

I said…

Starring as it does Dan Craig, the almost-too-good-to-be-true story of the Bielski brothers — Soviet Jews who after the Nazi invasion of Russia established a partisan group, carrying out raids from a kibbutz-like forest community — plays like 135 minutes of the moment in Munich where the blond-haired, blue-eyed Bond tells the world: "Don’t fuck with the Jews."

In fact…

Oh, man, he rides a white horse and everything. But I want to talk about something else, actually.

So this is Based on a True Story, thus naturally the first shot is newsreel footage of Hitler, merging into more scratched, grainy black-and-white footage of Nazis carrying out atrocities during the invasion of Russia. All well and good, I suppose — by now it’s a given that we’re supposed to care about movies like this (many of them directed by Ed Zwick) because it has some relation to history.

But at some point you start to notice that the celluloid is a bit too perfectly distressed, that the massacre is a bit too local and too perfect. And then we see a Nazi pointing his gun; cut to a peasant falling down dead. (Or is it a peasant falling dead; cut to a Nazi with a smoking gun? Sorry, I forget.) Eventually, of course, colors bleed into this black and white faux-newsreel footage, cuts become more frequent and fluid, and we’re clearly in a staged Nazi raid on a village.

I am particularly offended — like, actually personally offended, because I am a 24-year-old virgin and live in my mom’s basement and care too much about these things — by the presence of an action movie shot-reverse shot in the midst of what we’re supposed to read as a newsreel.

Did it not occur to Zwick, as he was shooting this from multiple angles and cutting the shots together into a fluid, exciting, audience-working pattern, that he was staging it in a way that couldn’t possibly bear any resemblance to actual news footage? Nah, it probably did.

This is, at least, from the layperson’s perspective, an offensive bit of manipulation; coming from a more academic place, I offer that this cavalier ahistorical mimicry of film grammar is a violation of whatever code of film ethics one might subscribe to.

At the very best it’s lazy or unthinking, at worst this action-movie cut and newsreel-like stock is a merging of two styles of film rhetoric that are mutually exclusive: fiction shaped for effect and reaction, and truth starkly presented for its moral urgency. So, um, bullshit.