Rated R - Running Time: 2:11 - Released 3/16/01

Movies about World War II have never been in short supply since the time when the global conflict was still going on; however, undoubtedly due to the Cold War, there have been precious few American WWII movies recounting the heroism of the Russian army and people. While Soviet leader Josef Stalin has never been much of a sympathetic figure to anyone since his death, there is no doubt that the unbreakable will of the vastly outgunned Red Army, and the similar resolve of the poverty-stricken Soviet populace, helped convince the world that Hitler was not as invincible as he seemed. Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy At The Gates is a look at one of the great turning points in the war which took place in the Russian city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Hitler's first major defeat after several years of virtually uncontested Nazi victories. Set in the winter of 1942-43, during this major Nazi-Soviet clash, Enemy isn't a grand epic involving attacks and counterattacks, with huge armies swarming and tanks exploding. It focuses instead on a small part of the conflict, recounting the true story of a duel between two snipers — a game of hide and seek, if you will, in which the penalty for being found was death.

Written, directed, and co-produced by acclaimed French director Annaud, with screenplay assistance by Alain Godard, Enemy At The Gates stars Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as Russian rifleman Vassily Zaitsev, a country boy whose phenomenal skill is noticed by news writer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). Danilov, knowing that low morale is as much at fault for recent Russian defeats as any other factor, introduces Vassily to future Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev (Bob Hoskins), who is serving as a high-ranking officer in the Red Army, and suggests that Vassily become the object of a nationwide media campaign. If the people have a hero, he argues, they may be able to muster the courage to keep up the fight. So as Vassily racks up kill after kill against important German officers, Danilov ticks away at his typewriter, building the young man into a celebrity of epic proportions, instilling hope in the Soviet consciousness and encouraging other sharpshooters to become Red Army snipers.

This campaign works beautifully until the German high command decides to fight fire with fire. Major Koenig (Ed Harris), a sniper with equal skill and cunning to that of Vassily, is sent to find the Russian hero and end his winning streak. Soon Vassily becomes aware that his national fame isn't such a good thing, as Koenig seems able to predict his every move.

While this film recounts the horror of war with the kind of brutal realism recently seen in films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, it also presents a traditional romantic triangle involving a young woman named Tania (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy) who is loved by both Vassily and Danilov. This affair works, in a way (all three actors are adequate, though none really have the kind of spark needed to generate real romantic heat), but the love story tends to take away from the authenticity of the film. It is supposed to be a true story, after all, and this kind of emotionalizing makes it feel much like another Hollywood romance. Harris, for his part, is believable as always; he gives Koenig a heart and soul that makes us understand that even Germans, even Nazis, were real people too. Also effective is 13-year-old Gabriel Thomson as Sacha, a young boy who works as a sort of double agent between Vassily and Koenig. Thomson's innocent charm keeps us in the dark regarding his true alliance as well as it does the other characters.

Enemy At The Gates, while not slavishly true to historical fact, is a good character study and a glimpse into one major facet of the war, namely the Russian perspective, that has heretofore been lacking in American movies. While it drags at times and its romance seems a little too conventional for the subject matter, it generally succeeds at telling a truly heroic story, providing yet another vehicle to showcase the talents of Law and Harris, and of their supporting cast. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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