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Enemy at the Gates   C

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Writers: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard
Cast: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, Rachel Weisz, Ron Perlman.

Review by Rob Vaux

As loathe as we were to admit it during the Cold War, the Soviet Union did more than any other country to defeat Nazi Germany. The Soviets tied up a huge bulk of German forces along the eastern front between 1941 and 1945, suffering horrendous casualties while giving the other Allies time to finish the job. Most movies about World War II focus solely on American, British, and other western heroics; very few even acknowledge the role the Soviets played. Considering the politics of the last 50 years, it certainly makes sense; even now, it's tough to acknowledge that it took a monster like Joseph Stalin to destroy a monster like Adolf Hitler.

Enemy at the Gates is interesting for no other reason than its testament to this uncomfortable truth. Ten years ago, a film like this could never have been made, at least not in the West. It took the end of the Cold War -- and then some -- to finally see the light. The film recounts a legendary sniper's duel at the Battle of Stalingrad, a human meat grinder that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and marked the beginning of the end for the Nazis. In its display of the street-to-street fighting between Germans and Russians, the dive-bombing Stukas along the Volga, the political officers shouting ruthlessly of class struggle and shooting deserters in the back, Enemy at the Gates makes us instantly aware just how invisible this chapter of the war was before now.

If only they could have put more into the script, they might have really had something.

Beginning with an opening that lumbers precariously close to Saving Private Ryan's, Enemy at the Gates plots a torturous course through blood-soaked battle scenes, soap-opera love triangles, and some highly questionable deux ex machina. It earns points for its visual style and some fine performances, but invariably manages to trip over its own feet just when things are getting interesting. The two snipers at the film's core are Vassili Zaistev (Jude Law), an Ural shepherd transformed into a national hero by sly propagandist Dalinov (Joseph Fiennes), and Major Konig (Ed Harris), the blue-blooded German sent to stop him. The best parts of Enemy at the Gates revolve around either or both of the two men. Vassili's first meeting with Dalinov -- where the politician witnesses his sniper's skills -- is imaginatively filmed, as is his mute horror at the first taste of battle (he enters the fighting without a rifle, only a handful of bullets). Harris gives a strong measured performance as Konig, an old-fashioned soldier dedicated to honor and victory in equally ruthless amounts. We follow their lengthy standoff as a microcosm of the entire conflict. The greater battle surrounding them slowly fades away, leaving just these two to sort things out.

Unfortunately, director/co-screenwriter Jean-Jacques Annaud never finds the right rhythm for their conflict. The battle scenes have power (and the bombed-out settings work marvelously), but often stumble over laborious plot twists. Each time the two face off, something happens to delay the final showdown -- a bombing run, another sniper who gets it instead, etc. At first, these devices work well enough, but they grow increasingly irritating as the film goes on. We stop worrying about which of them is going to win and start wondering what last-second interruption will defer the final victory yet again. There's a bit of payoff when we finally get around to the climactic showdown -- it contains the film's most striking images -- but by then, it's too late.

Annaud makes another mistake in juxtaposing these edgy standoffs with a lot of less-than-stirring melodrama: most notably a pretty love interest (Rachel Weisz) who drives a wedge between Vassili and Dalinov. The sudsy romance and implied double-dealings that it engenders become quite wearisome, drawing attention away from the film's strengths. Some corny dialogue and a few technical gaffes (the Nazis salute instead of Heiling) don't help matters either, and many otherwise wonderful moments are undone by over-explanation, bad pacing, or simple heavy-handedness. Working through such near-misses to find the good material ultimately becomes more trouble than it's worth.

History buffs will find some interesting moments in Enemy at the Gates, and a few strong supporting performances (Bob Hoskins as an earthy Nikita Krushchev; Ron Perlman as a fellow sniper with no illusions about Soviet morality) keep things from descending too far. But it lacks the fervor that a good war film needs, and never locates the timing to properly pull off a story like this. Its rarely-seen subject matter has real merit, and I suspect will distinguish the production for some time to come, but "new" and "different" don't necessarily mean "good." Somewhere out there is a great movie about the Soviet-Nazi conflict. Until it shows up, we'll have to settle for Enemy at the Gates.

Review published 03.19.2001.

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