Enemy at the Gates is a cross between the PlayStation game Medal of Honor, a World War II Nazi-shoot-'em-up viewed through a sniper's scope, and a Harlequin romance novel. No doubt director and co-writer Jean-Jacques Annaud thought he was making a Serious Film, but what he ended up with is a sanctimonious anti-Communist diatribe dolled up like war porn. The opening scenes play like a rip-off of Saving Private Ryan, as boatloads of Russian soldiers are targeted by German bombers.
Annaud's epic, complete with scene after scene of horrific massacres and pulverizing strafings, is like one of those hackneyed WW II movies made in the mid-1950s. Ostensibly, Enemy at the Gates is the true story of Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a Russian sniper whose rifle made him a folk hero in the Soviet Union during the winter of 1942-43, when the Nazis were mired in the Battle of Stalingrad. Vassili could wait out his prey for days. Celebrated in the papers and over the radio as the Soviets' sole beacon of hope to emerge from the city's rubble, Vassili was deemed such a threat that the Nazis brought in their best man, the aristocratic Major Konig (portrayed by Ed Harris), to eradicate him. (Konig exists only in Russian lore; the Germans claim no such soldier ever existed.)
Annaud chose to recount what is essentially a war myth. It's the ultimate showdown taking place in the middle of chaos -- two men, one poor and one rich, facing off like cowboys at high noon. Soviet political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), the man who "discovered" Vassili mowing down a handful of Nazis with a bolt-action rifle, uses his typewriter and printing press to elevate the farm boy to icon within a matter of days. However, war stories are hardly so intimate.
The scenes between Harris and Law are indeed captivating, even wrenching -- hide-and-seek played by men using artillery. Even as German airplanes level Stalingrad, the two men wait and wait and wait for each other, staring through snipers' scopes with unblinking eyes. Harris, in particular, wears the thousand-yard stare as though he's spent his entire life watching the world through crosshairs. Somehow, he still makes Konig the most realistic character here; he, at least, has a purpose. Vassili is meant to be seen as his equal -- and his opposite. He doesn't enjoy killing the way Konig does; he talks of noticing whether his victim shaved that morning or wears a wedding band. For him, being a sniper makes war more intimate; each victim is not merely a uniform, but a face that haunts him until it's replaced by another.
But Annaud isn't content with merely recounting the face-off between two warriors; he insists on recounting the entire myth, complete with a love triangle between Danilov, Vassili and a Russian soldier named Tania (Rachel Weisz). Danilov wants to use Tania, who can read German, as a translator of intercepted communiqués, but she insists on being assigned to the front. As a Jew whose parents were murdered by the Nazis, she seeks revenge with a rifle, not a pen. Danilov wants Vassili to talk her out of fighting, but it's a moot point: Vassili and Tania are comrades-in-arms, literally (they make love amidst sleeping soldiers in one touching, almost erotic scene that's less about showing and more about feeling). Danilov, upon discovering their relationship, goes nearly mad, threatening to "reveal" his heroic sniper as a traitorous coward.
The love story, not to mention plot holes large enough to swallow entire platoons, so bogs down the movie that any tension the Vassili-Konig confrontation creates disappears every time Weisz appears on screen. She tears apart comrades -- and the movie. By the end, we care little whether this is a true story or not, because Annaud has rendered his tale so mushy and, worse, predictable that we feel more manipulated than moved. It's as though Annaud had so little faith in his main story that he felt the need to turn a subplot into his entire plot -- World War II as the world's worst first date.
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