Enemy at the Gates
Stories heap flesh and blood onto history's skeletal remains. The official version compresses individual lives into the size of a footnote; personal narrative returns folks to the center of events. By focusing on a handful of participants in epic battles, Enemy at the Gates creates a good war story.
The movie unfolds during World War II's Battle of Stalingrad—a long bloody conflict between the Soviet Army and Nazi forces. Ill-equipped leaders drop Russian peasant Vasily (Jude Law) into the chaos with minimal preparation and the threat of execution upon desertion or retreat. When novice gets his hands on a rifle, childhood sharpshooting skills (learned by poaching wolves) return with lethal skill. Officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) quickly notices Vasily's talent. With a couple of well-publicized photographs and stories of the humble boy's aim, Danilov transforms Vasily into a morale-boosting folk hero. This is a war, so complications soon arise from both sides. Vasily falls for Tanya (Rachel Weisz), a fellow sniper. And so does Danilov. Out to crush Red Army spirits, the Germans sic their best rifleman—played with steel intensity by Ed Harris—on Vasily.
The acting is uniformly excellent. The love triangle and the more existential cat-and-mouse game between Law and Harris are artfully portrayed with a nod to the political complexity of it all. The fact that violence comes fast and frequent is offset by its tasteful rendering. Indeed, the biggest threat to Enemy at the Gates lies within. Unnecessary ballast bogs down the script. Unrestrained symphonics cut through the soundtrack. No matter how muddied up the handsome hero gets, war movies nearly always strum up jingoistic feelings. This one is no exception. But does Enemy at the Gates stand up to Saving Private Ryan? You bet.