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Now: Defiance (2008)
Then: Munich (2005)
Ed Zwick’s Defiance tells the true story of the Bielski brothers, Jewish siblings in Belarus who helped lead a resistance against the invading Nazis and formed a commune of refugees in the woods, thereby saving the lives of thousands. Steven Spielberg’s Munich is the fact-based tale of the Israeli assassins who helped hunt down those responsible for the deaths of twelve Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Both films give us Jewish heroes fighting against great historic evils. Which one should you fight for?
Defiance: The Bielskis’ journey begins when their parents are killed by the SS; the brothers take vengeance on the local official responsible for killing their family.
Munich: In retaliation for the deaths of Israeli athletes at the hands of the mysterious Palestinian terrorist group Black September, Mossad agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) is entrusted to eliminate the group’s members operating in Europe.
The Winner: Munich. Its depiction of an ordinary man whose need for vengeance leads him to question the nature of justice resonates more in today’s world.
Defiance: The oldest Bielski brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig) thinks it’s more important to protect their commune of refugees, whereas the more aggressive Zus (Liev Schreiber) wants to take the fight to the Nazis.
Munich: As Avner begins to question the validity of the eye-for-an-eye approach, he finds himself at odds with his fellow assassin, the far more aggressive Steve (Daniel Craig, again!).
The Winner: Defiance. Munich‘s dilemma may be more intellectually interesting, but it doesn’t quite register on film.
The Bad Guys
Defiance: Nazis always make for pretty good villains, but the Bielski brothers also make sure to hold collaborators and other traitors accountable.
Munich: Avner is told that the people he’s eliminating are all members of Black September, but he becomes less and less sure as the movie progresses.
The Winner: Munich. Despite the horror of the Munich killings, it has the guts to show us a world that’s not black and white.
Defiance: Zus, the more gung-ho of the Bielski Brothers, joins the Red Army’s resistance, which itself is packed to the gills with anti-Semites.
Munich: Avner collaborates with enigmatic French gangsters to help locate his quarries. But they seem to be playing both sides: At one point, they put the Israeli agents up at the same secret safe house as some PLO operatives.
The Winner: Defiance. Watching brawny tough guy Zus face the anti-Semitism of his fellow soldiers is genuinely poignant. Plus, Schreiber’s great in this movie.
Defiance: While the younger Bielski brother Asael marries his sweetheart in the woods, with the commune celebrating all around him, Zus leads a vicious attack on a German convoy — an engaging juxtaposition that goes on for way too long.
Munich: In one of the craziest editing gambits of any movie in recent years, a troubled Avner makes sweaty love to his wife while he replays the Munich attacks in his mind — complete with a sweaty, slo-mo climax.
The Winner: Neither.
Defiance: It’s a history lesson wrapped in an action movie — Schindler’s List meets Rambo — which makes for engaging, though occasionally uneven viewing.
Munich: It’s a bold attempt to grapple with terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian problem — but it too sometimes falls prey to action movie clichés.
The Winner: Defiance. Munich may tackle more resonant issues, but it never quite reconciles its fondness for suspenseful setpieces with the complexities it seeks to lay bare.