Enemy at the Gates comes up flat despite the first-rate cast, set design, cinematography, and plot. The character development is simply too little, too late. Rating: 5 out of 10.
There are so many good things about Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates that I wish I liked it. A look at the special features on the DVD tells the incredible story of how the city of Stalingrad in the movie is actually a set built in Germany. The movie is great visually. It starts off with a thrilling scene of Russians crossing the Vulga and attacking the Germans in 1942. From the rubble of this brutal battle a hero emerges--Russian sharpshooter Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). The stage is set for a potentially great story. Zaitsev is then made into a war hero by propaganda expert Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), which induces the Germans to send their own sniper, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to wipe Zaitsev out. Amidst the long, drawn-out chess game between the two snipers, a love triangle is thrown in featuring Zaitsev, Danilov, and Tania (Rachel Weisz), another Russian soldier. Eventually the showdown between the snipers comes, and (spoiler here) it all ends about how you expect it will.
CAST: Everyone is great. Jude Law has natural charisma and subtlety. Joseph Fiennes is very good. Rachel Weisz is great, and Ed Harris is a master. Bob Hoskins, almost unrecognizable as Nikita Kruschev, does a fine job. All involved did the best with what they were given. In that sense, I agree with a previous reviewer who commended the characterizations. As for the characters themselves...
CHARACTERS: We don't find out a single thing about Konig until right around the one hour 40 minute mark, and then it's only one line. He's more of an automated killing machine than a character, and his motivation is revealed so late and so matter-of-factly that it's easy to go right back to thinking of him as one-dimensional. Rarely will you see an actor more short-shrifted than Ed Harris is here. Joseph Fiennes doesn't fare much better. He seems to be noble in his intentions at first, wanting nothing more than to further the cause of Russia, but later seems willing to dump all of that over the girl. Law and Weisz are given more human elements and more backstory, also mostly later in the film, but they, like the rest of the characters, aren't given enough moments of humanity to seem quite real. Maybe Saving Private Ryan worked so well because of the tender and humorous moments mixed in with the gore and suspense. We don't get that here; the plot seems overarching, and the characters pay the price. Even the sex scene, despite being set in a grimy, crowded shelter, seemed mechanical.
VISUALS: The movie looks great. A few of the obvious CGI shots seemed to show a different Stalingrad than the one seen by people on the ground, but all in all a fantastic job. The opening sequences in particular are stunning; perhaps it's too bad more of a bang wasn't saved for the end. Two things I really liked: the illustration early in the movie that shows the Nazi black spreading across a globe and overtaking the Russian red (for us historically ignorant Americans, no doubt) and the closing credits--those were really neat looking, and original.
SCREENPLAY: Again, no major missteps, but nothing terribly profound either. Aside from perhaps causing those of us who usually think of WWII from an American perspective to think beyond that framework, this doesn't have that much food for thought. It just isn't challenging on any level, be it intellectual, emotional, or personal. There are no terrible lines here; simply not much is said by the characters, or really by the movie as a whole.
WHEN COMPARED TO SAVING PRIVATE RYAN… Let's face it: Spielberg's recent masterpiece revitalized war movies (maybe too much--has anyone seen how many WWII flicks are coming out this year and next?), and though imperfect, it is the standard against which they will all be measured. Enemy seems like a made-for-television movie in comparison. The horror never really hits home, and the plot dominates. The special effects never let us forget we're watching a movie and not the real thing. The Stalingrad set is phenomenal, but just doesn't look as real as the towns in Ryan did. Worst of all, this film simply does not force us to face anything new about war or about ourselves, and in that sense fails to enrich us as human beings. It is easier to watch than Spielberg's film was, but I'm not sure it should be. The last straw for Enemy is that it resorts to Hollywood-style gimmicks. The obligatory, underdevoloped (and unrealistic seeming) romance is way out of place in this picture. At least it doesn't take up 90% of the running time the way it evidently does in Pearl Harbor. The choices of who lives and dies at the end is annoyingly inside-the-box. It seems the makers of this one were trying to make the genre more accessible, but I think they only succeeded in watering it down.
DVD EXTRAS: It was neat to hear about how they had to build Stalingrad, but most of the rest of the 'making of' special came off more like a trailer for the movie. I turned it off before it was done.
As we all know, modern filmmaking has made great strides in visual and special-effect excellence, often combined with painstaking historical accuracy (such as the meticulous research that went into the costumes for the Mel Gibson vehicle The Patriot or the down-to-the-silverware exactnesss of the big boat that sank in James Cameron's film), but has taken multiple strides backwards in storytelling. I'm afraid Enemy at the Gates ends up as just another such example--a great-looking, well-crafted film with not much going on in its head or its hard. Given the subject matter, the cast, and the obviously more than adequate budget available to director Jean-Jacques Annaud and the producers of the film, it's a shame.
Director: Dominic Sena
Running Time: 99 minutes
Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
Click here for complete details at IMDB.com.
Review copyright 2003 by Toby Baldwin
Originally written August 14, 2001
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