Legend of Russian sniper during the Battle of Stalingrad is powerfully cinematic but overly melodramatic
The first half-hour of "Enemy at the Gates" is a cinematically stunning, hyper-realistic battlefield nightmare that transports the viewer right into the heart of the Nazis' yearlong siege of Stalingrad during World War II.
"Autumn, 1942," deplores the period-style voiceover as a shadow creeps across an illustrative map in an updated homage to old-timey war pictures. "Europe lies crushed under the Nazi jackboot..."
German planes dive-bomb troop transports in an incredible attack sequence. Sweeping shots the color of mud and blood take in the scale of the besieged city's cold, yet smoldering ruins while Red Army officers recite threatening propaganda to masses of soldiers who would rather flee.
And then director (and co-writer) Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Seven Years in Tibet") zeros in on two Russian soldiers. One is a born sharpshooter, about to become a decorated sniper. The other is a propaganda officer who will hyperbolize the rifleman into a national hero by chronicling his kills during this historic battle that helped turn the tide of the war.
But as these two men are brought into sharp focus, Annaud seems to get impatient. Using little more than a montage sequence, he barnstorms through establishing the prowess and growing legend of marksman Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). With only a few broad smiles and hurried, back-slapping hugs, he expects the audience to understand that a brotherly bond has formed between Vassili and Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), the propaganda man who answers directly to a bellicose general named Nikita Khrushchev (played with ferocious aplomb by Bob Hoskins).
"Enemy at the Gates" loses most of its emotional hook by rushing through these scenes. The audience fails to connect with the characters and it takes another couple reels before we feel invested in them again.
In the mean time, the story turns immoderately melodramatic with the introduction of a beautiful militia soldier (Rachel Weisz) who falls in love with Vassili, making Danilov jealous.
In a strong performance, Law gives Vassili soft-spoken complexity and a sincere modesty that make him a very likable unlikely hero. Fiennes provides the film with admirable nationalistic pride, allegiance and emotional gravity. Weisz is both moving and convincing as a beautiful intellectual who chooses to pick up a rifle and defend her city and her people. But the love triangle feels disingenuous -- like an overt attempt to wedge Chekovian tear-jerking into the picture.
"Enemy" is put back on track by the arrival of Ed Harris, playing an exalted German major named Konig who is pulled away from his stewardship of a Nazi sniper school to travel to Stalingrad and personally assassinate Vassili. The months-long duel that follows between these steathly one-bullet combatants is rife with drawn-out tension built on patience, strategy, espionage and meticulous precision -- all played out in a dangerous no-man's land of city rubble.
As Konig and Vassili lie in wait for each other and match wits through magnifying gun sites, this showdown of mano-a-mano military perseverance inspires gripping cinematic moments strong enough to carry the picture through several reels of what is obviously wholesale dramatic license. (Vassili was a real Soviet war hero. The rest of the characters are largely fictional.)
But Annaud's impulse to romanticize every element of the story (as he did with "Seven Years in Tibet") gets the better of him and of the movie. The mutual reconnaissance between these stealthy warriors -- facilitated by a young shoeshine boy who worships Vassili and services Konig -- becomes superfluously convoluted. As they try and fail to take each other out, the showdowns become a touch too dependent on chance and coincidence.
The climax of the love story actually got an unintended laugh at the screening I attended, when Weisz and Law make passionate love amongst sleeping soldiers in a bunker. And as the movie wears on, it becomes terribly grandiose with operatic moments of self-sacrifice, an intrusive score (by "Titanic's" James Horner) and characters spouting dime novel profundity. (Not to mention an ending that smells of a test audience-inspired reshoot.)
"Enemy at the Gates" is spectacularly atmospheric. It feels like war, especially during the frighteningly realistic bombing raid scenes, which are at the same time strangely beautiful. And Annaud makes the viewer feel like a Stalingrad civilian, not like one of the soldiers, which heightens the film's intensity. He also endows several battle scenes with powerful, but mostly subtle, symbolism -- like when the camera pans past a statue of children at play that has soldiers' bodies piled at its feet.
But while the ambience is enveloping, the all-too-apparent contrivances keep undermining this outwardly strong war picture until its impact is watered down to the level of lukewarm disappointment.