Good Story, Good Fights, Indifferent ActingThe battle of Stalingrad was one of the turning points of World War II. Many historians agree that had Adolf Hitler not tried to extend his empire into Russia (really a test of wills between himself and Joseph Stalin), German forces in Europe would not have suffered enormous losses and the otherwise crippling blow to the German stronghold might never have been dealt. This epic battle resulted in the near complete destruction of Stalingrad and huge casualties for both sides.
"Enemy at the Gates" takes place during this bloody confrontation, and is recreated with outstanding computer imagery that by itself is enough to wow audiences. While "Enemy at the Gates" is reminiscent of
"Saving Private Ryan" in the opening battle scenes, the former surpasses the latter with a far better story line. Recreating a realistic battle scene is a huge undertaking, that usually involves close attention to gore. In this regard, "Enemy of the Gates" falls short in reproducing the uncompromising and stark reality of war that is so well captured in "The Thin Red Line."
The protagonist of the story is the real-life Russian hero Vassili Vaitsev (Jude Law), a sniper from humble origins who was hailed as a national hero for his contributions to Russia's victory over Germany during the final days of Stalingrad.
When Vassili saves the life of the Russian commander Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) by picking off members of a German brigade one by one, he is promoted to leader of a sniper unit. Danilov happens to be a political officer in charge of printing inspirational propaganda for Russian troops. He values Vassili not only for his uncanny marksmanship, but also for his potential as a much-needed hero among forlorn soldiers.
The two make a perfect team with Vassili accomplishing feats of greatness as a sniper, while Danilov feeds the stories to the hungry public.
Vassili becomes an overnight sensation through the propaganda campaign and as his fame as a sharpshooter spreads, low morale among German troops sets in. Inevitably, they are forced to bring in their own legendary sniper Koenig (Ed Harris) to take care of the problem Vassili presents.
While the war wages on, a deadly and very personal game of cat and mouse between the two representative soldiers ensues.
Rather than rely heavily on historical documentation, director Jean-Jacques Annaud focuses on the interaction of a few characters to document history in a roundabout way.
Like a good term paper that proves its thesis, this movie presents itself in a direct and concise manner. You know what to expect, but because the movie is tastefully done you are pleased at seeing the results unfold. And while the traps that the two snipers set for each other are not entirely suspenseful, Ed Harris does manage to engage the viewer by juxtaposing the callous, almost inhuman nature of his character, with a shred of humanity.
In the movie Vassili does not believe that he can defeat Koenig. Yet at the same time, the hopes of a nation are dependent on his ability to emerge as the hero. Jude Law is a fine actor, but he could do better to illustrate the huge mental anguish that should have dominated his character.
Joseph Fiennes, younger brother of Ralph Fiennes and most notable for his stellar performances in "Elizabeth" and "Shakespeare in Love," loses his way with a role that is both overwrought and unconvincing.
With the exception of Bob Hoskins, who plays a bitter Khrushchev, all the characters to some degree fail to come alive and to convey the kind of on-edge feeling that should normally be present in someone who may die at a moment's notice.
The lack of dramatic tension between these characters makes their performances seem pat, as if they could have been used to fill a spot in any type of film, not just one documenting the most crucial moments of World War II. At times, you find yourself wanting to play the director and yell "CUT! What is your MOTIVATION? You're in the middle of a WAR for Pete's sakes!"
The chilling scenes in which Russian troops gun down their own soldiers to stop them from retreating, and the depictions of female soldiers being recruited for battle are much more effective at portraying the desperation and brutality of the times than the bizarre love triangle involving three of the characters.
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