Enemy At The Gates
While the Nazi and Russian armies hurl rank after rank of soldiers at each other and the world fearfully awaits the outcome of the battle of Stalingrad, the celebrated Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) quietly stalks his enemies one man at a time. His fame, however, soon thrusts him into a duel with the Nazi’s best sharpshooter, Major Konig (Ed Harris), and the two find themselves waging an intense personal war while the most momentous battle of the age rages around them.
Unassuming and self-contained, Vassili is just an ordinary man who performs his duty with extraordinary skill. Realizing his propaganda value, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a Soviet political officer, builds this simple soldier from the Urals into a much-needed national hero.
Vassili’s fierce example, as documented by Danilov, boosts the defenders’ will to go on fighting despite overwhelming odds. Danilov, however, soon becomes jealous of the man he created when, in the midst of war, they both fall in love with Tania (Rachel Weisz), one of the many courageous women soldiers fighting alongside the men.
After a seemingly endless parade of crude, mindless or emotionally hollow movie openings, finally the first great film of 2001 comes to the local bijou. Writer/director Jean-Jacques Annaud grabs the viewer from the opening sequences and doesn’t let go. This audience member was simply mesmerized. An epic war film, sensitive character study, and intense romantic love story, “Enemy At The Gate” is the most dynamic film I have seen since “L.A. Confidential” (the best film of 1997, despite the Motion Picture Academy’s “Titanic”choice). Most great war films (“All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Patton,” “Saving Private Ryan”) are also anti-war films. While they point out the fact that there are important causes worth sacrificing for, they also remind us that as centuries pass, man seems determined to reject peaceful solutions to world conflicts, preferring to blow each other up. Lately, Hollywood has been apt at producing films that not only testify to this assertion, but also come close to portraying the terrifying real-life experience of men under fire. (Veterans, notice I said, “come close.” No film could ever recreate exactly what you’ve had to experience.) While I am generally opposed to graphic brutality on the silver screen, the one exception may be for the portrait of combat. “Enemy” does not glorify war. It simply shows men trying to survive its lunacies. It develops characters fully, showing that no matter the reigning political philosophy, mankind finds a never-ending struggle with envy. The writing, while never trivializing the characters with false sentimentality, is earnest, revealing and at times almost poetic. The cinematography switches from the telescope to the microscope as it examines intimate moments amidst extraordinary situations. The score goes almost unnoticed, but is secretly adding dimension to every scene. And the casting is just downright perfect. Jude Law has a smoldering intensity studios keep claiming of each of their up-and-comers. Rachel Weisz has a sensual beauty outshown only by her screen integrity. She is one Hollywood beauty who can pass believably as a fierce warrior. And Ed Harris gives another subtle, yet remarkable performance that afterwards reminds us that he is an actor’s actor. Most movie stars have a compelling charisma. Most good actors can slide into their roles without drawing attention to themselves. But occasionally an actor such as Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Judy Dench or Ed Harris comes along with the ability to draw you into a characterization with such a naturalism and a formidable style that moviegoers can’t help but be hypnotized. But as terrific as these elements are, this is a director’s film. Being both the screenwriter and the director, Jean-Jacques Annuad (“Black and White in Color,” “The Bear,” “Seven Years in Tibet”) has successfully visualized his concept of the mythic story of one of Russia’s greatest heroes. “We have taken a historical event and tried to understand what happened in the hearts of people who lived through it.” His large-scale battle cry never overshadows the importance of his film’s themes. His messages are fully realized and so compelling, I found myself either expressing “wow” at certain moments, or tearing up by his ability to portray such vulnerability amid large-scale action sequences. After the vacancy of the megaflash screen hits I’ve viewed so far this year, I was uplifted by “Enemy’s” fullness and its profundity. It’s a war film. It’s a romantic tale. But most of all, it is a film of substance. However, due to the film’s graphic bloodletting and the one sexual encounter that may be the most sensual coupling I have ever seen in a movie theater, I am unable to recommend this for family viewing. But I can’t help being jazzed by this film. It entertained me with its action adventure and touched me with its characters’ struggle to connect with the promise of what life is supposed to offer. And whether or not it is the intent of the filmmakers, like any great personal story put on film, it proves that the world is destined to continue in its futility if mankind persists in rejecting his relationship with God.