A true-life story, a family drama, an epic tale of war – “Defiance” aims to be an all-in-one movie.

Director Edward Zwick (“Glory,” “The Last Samurai”) knows how to turn history into Hollywood entertainment, but with this story of three Jewish brothers who led a resistance group during World War II, he goes for grit as much as gloss. “Defiance” comes alive in its quieter scenes and smaller details.

The film opens in 1941 in Belarus and quickly dives into its story: Two ne’er-do-well brothers, Tuvia and Zus Bielski (Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, respectively), return home to find their father murdered by Nazis and their younger brother, Asael ( Jamie Bell), hiding under the floorboards. Together they flee to the woods, a place they know well. (The script, based on Nechama Tec’s book, hints that the older Bielskis spent some time there avoiding the law.) Soon they’re taking in other stragglers, and, person by person, the partisan force known as the Bielski Otriad is born.

Their group grows from camp to village to civilization, with a school, a hospital and ad hoc social conventions (the men take “forest wives”). But small fissures develop into dangerous rivalries, especially between the hotheaded Zus, who’s itching to spill Nazi blood, and the more levelheaded Tuvia, the camp’s de facto commander.

“Defiance” packs in a multitude of themes and story lines, and some get slighted. Tuvia’s transformation from coldhearted brute (one early scene, in which he avenges his father, is truly harrowing) into civic leader is only roughly sketched. And his relationship with Zus never quite comes into focus.

But Zwick keeps every ball in the air for more than two hours, and, in the end, “Defiance,” like its subjects, succeeds through sheer tenacity.


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