If only ambition was the bar at which to measure the quality of motion pictures, Enemy at the Gates could sit atop the best of the year. In this quiet, post-Oscar/pre-summer blockbuster season, it is noteworthy to find a film of such epic proportion and scale. This relatively under the radar movie takes itself very seriously and has the breathtaking visuals and gritty combat realism to back it up.
In war-torn Stalingrad, once a great city now reduced to rubble by the ever-expanding Nazi empire, we are swept into the story of a young Russian soldier, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), trying to obediently serve the mother country, while not becoming one of the thousands of bullet riddled bodies collecting around him. But Vassili refuses to fall like the scattered Russian infantrymen; and becomes, if this were The Matrix, “the One”. He becomes the 'survivor of myth'- who can go into battle without a rifle (a shocking display of loyalty and fear) and he will be the last man standing, simply because someone must tell the horrifying tale. His talents though go beyond the apparent, as he fires off magnificent headshots and disposes of Nazis – one cloud of gun smoke at a time. With the promotion and hype drummed up by a young Russian Commander (Joseph Fiennes) Vassili becomes a cult hero (yes, kinda like Billie-Jean but with a less-cool haircut) giving the people the “hope” that we are told is the crucial ingredient for beating Nazis. (Of course, a tank or plane probably wouldn't have hurt either.) The fame of Vassili spreads as he begins to rack up kill tickets (they look like helmets crossed out) like Willie Mays Hayes nails up batting gloves.
Beyond the supremely engaging demeanor of Law, Enemy doesn't have the urgency or heart to make us care too much about the story. After all, the good guys here are loyal subjects of Joseph Stalin who murder their own soldiers at the first sign of well-earned cowardice. This movie tests the theory that says: In a confrontation between X and Hitler, X is always less evil so all must root for X.
The 'snipers-only' chess match between Vassili and the veteran marksman sent to terminate him, a whispering iceman played by Ed Harris fresh off an Oscar nomination, remains the most watchable feature of the film. There is a riveting energy emanating from the two professionals challenging each other in a deadly duel- where methodical strategy is equally matched by mutual respect. These one-on-one battles are staged in a jungle of stones, pipes, and corpses with an element of measured patience added to tantalize a tense audience.
We are meant to believe, perhaps to impress upon us, that the result of this bout will have some significant affect on the war. Fiennes' Danilov tells General Nikita Krushchev, an impossibly British Bob Hoskins, (Incidentally, every Russian in this film is played by a Brit and they don't try to hide it) that Vassili could win the war for them if he keeps making kills, but we, the audience, dismiss it as mere delusion. The truth is that Vassili's saga is one of courage, brutality, and his story displays the curse of being 'chosen'; there should be no shame in that being the lone focus of this movie. But director and writer Jean Jacques Annaud suffers from a mild case of Spenis envy, the uncontrollable desire to model a film after Steven Spielberg's. Annaud is constantly reminding us of the grim chaos and inglorious fatalities that were handled flawlessly in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. While Annaud's war scenes certainly remain startling and petrifying, and some of the camerawork during air strikes is even original, Ryan continues to be the standard and Enemy can only emulate and try its best to compare. The other stand-by here is the triumphant Holocaust powerhouse, Schindler's List. From an early depiction of Russian soldiers in cattle-cars to the note-for-note reconstruction of the Schindler's score, we may begin to wonder whether we are still in the realm of coincidence.
Also involved is a beautiful Jewish woman name Tania (Rachel Weisz) soldiering for the Russians, but fearing that her Judaism could sign her death warrant regardless. Tania ends up occupying one corner of a seemingly extraneous love triangle, obsessed over by Danilov, but coveting the awesome Vassili. For the complexities of these interesting relationships to be truly fleshed out and appropriately sculpted, the movie would need to be lengthened and it goes on for an eternity as it is. Speaking of flesh, this movie does include a provocative and unique love scene, which can, for once, not honestly be accused of gratuity (a first!). The sexual encounter actually conveys a meaningful message about desperation and need amidst grave destruction.
In the end, Enemy can't live up to the goals it aims for as it delivers a number of anti-climaxes, some more moving than others. While the brutal realities of World War II play front and center and are given admirable treatment, the movie could have reached loftier heights by narrowing it's scope and allowing the individual character studies to rise from the ashes.