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Enemy at the
Enemy at the Gates takes the legend of a venerated Soviet
war hero, Vassili Zaitsev, and fictionalizes it into a Hollywood-style romantic drama
placed against the background of the siege of Stalingrad in 1942-3. Zaitsev (Jude
Law) was a peasant, trained by his grandfather to be a crack marksman and skilled hunter.
As the horrific slaughter of the battles at Stalingrad decimated the poorly trained and
underequipped Soviet army, Zaitzev's skills were put to use as a sniper, picking off Nazi
soldiers one-by-one. In the film, Danilov (Joseph
Fiennes), a PR flack for the Soviets, inflates modest Zaitsev's successes into a major
ongoing news story, creating a hero in order to resuscitate the ebbing morale of the
Soviet troops. Zaitsev's accomplishments, both as soldier and coverboy, lead the
Nazis to call in a counter-sniper, aristocratic Major Konig (Ed Harris), an icily
efficient assassin. A duel of wits and skills (and class, too, it is broadly suggested)
ensues, involving spying and counterspying by a young boy, Sasha (Gabriel Thomson).
Sasha's positioning between the two marksmen stretches credulity and his fate is
predictable long before the story gets to it, but those are flaws that the target audience
for a large-scale Speilbergian war story will likely forgive.
"Spielbergian" is no coincidence here: Enemy at the Gates
practically screams for comparison to Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's 1998 opus
that won him an Academy award. Ryan also traces an intimate story against the
background of a major battle of World War II. Whatever else viewers thought of the film,
the technical brilliance and the gritty realism of the opening half hour rendering of the
D-Day invasion was memorable movie-making, and the movie gained real power in its
character-based central story.
Held against that standard, Enemy doesn't make the cut. It
also opens with a major attack by barely-arrived Soviet troops, crossing the Volga River
in boats to get to Stalingrad as they are bombarded by artillery and strafed from the air
by Nazi planes. It's a big, sweeping epic-style sequence with plenty of blood and gore,
but it doesn't carry the wrenching emotional whack that Ryan's invasion did.
Where Ryan succeeded in making you feel like you were a terrified soldier in the
midst of havoc, Enemy never gets to that visceral place--you're outside looking
in, watching a spectacle of someone else's horror.
As for the more personal story, Spielberg managed to create characters
you could care about and their predicaments on the battlefield were interesting
explorations of moral issues in the midst of the amoral insanity of war. Enemy,
in contrast, focuses on the dueling snipers--plot-based, rather than character-based. The
sniping scenes are well-realized, generating tension and suspense, but it's limited by the
flat conceptions of the characters. Cliched wartime romance is thrown into the hopper,
but you won't likely care who gets the girl, if that was ever really a question in the
first place; the triangle here has only two strong sides.
Bob Hoskins provides comic relief in the form of an over-the-top
caricature of Nikita Kruschev as a ranking Soviet officer. What could anyone do
with lines like: "Don't give up the riverbank! I don't care if you've lost half your
soldiers, send in the other half!" It's as if director Jean-Jacques Annaud threw up
his hands at the fundamental thinness of his own script (co-written with Alain
Godard) and conceded he was creating an epic comic book.
Jude Law is charming as Vassili, but doesn't succeed in distinguishing
the role from the charm he delivered in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It's hard to reconcile the nice
guy he plays here with the cold-blooded sniper-killer, even in the war setting; it's one
thing to shoot wolves, another to gun down a guy taking a shower. Law is a charismatic
screen presence, but no actor could have overcome the failure of the script to provide a
believable character to play. Fiennes, too, is stuck with an inadequately developed role.
Love interest Rachel Weisz fails to engage; even the scene where she relates the fate of
her parents at the hands of the ever-inventive Nazis, it's the graphic image that
captures, not any genuinely felt emotion.
For the broad commercial audience--surely the only audience for which
this film could have been intended--Enemy at the Gates provides spectacle, a bit
of suspense, and young, attractive stars. That might prove to be enough for commercial
success. Producers best beware, though, if that audience ever starts to think
about what is being dished up to them on the screen.
- Arthur Lazere