Enemy at the Gates

on March 16, 2001 by Bridget Byrne
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   The filmmakers of "Enemy at the Gates" haven't solved the "hearts and minds" problem--not for the films' heroes and villains, and certainly not for themselves.

   Jude Law can't engage us, despite his excellent good looks, like Gary Cooper could in the patriotic World War I sniper hero biography "Sergeant York," or even, despite his simpatico screen presence, like Tom Hanks in the patriotic World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan."

   Although based on a real person, or at least the propaganda image of a real person, Law's Vassili Zaitsev is provided little chance to make his World War II Soviet Union hero a full man whom audiences can care about and understand. A few scant moments of prologue to show us what his grandpappy taught him--how to shoot a wolf in the eye--is not enough to let us know Zaitsev before all the action and special effects blast in and character starts to play second fiddle to the sights and sounds of bullets and bombardment, not to mention the film's overwhelming soupy portentous music, composed by James Horner.

   Jean-Jacques Annaud, as co-writer, producer and director, seems stuck in a dilemma. He's comfortable depicting all Nazis as bad, but he can't depict all Soviets as good. He can't therefore plump for the simple glory/gory Hollywood war flick stuff; he has to give us the complex, the gray area, the muddle of human idealism versus human frailty. He stumbles around looking, but he can't find the core of what he's seeking. He can only give us the superficial mess. It's an interesting thing for a good, simple man to become a sniper, but that story is lost in the big-scale action which entirely fails to engage us in the broader conflicts of what is worth killing and dying for.

   So what we get are the clichés--the love triangle, the young boy, the cold-eyed enemy, the supporting characters' early deaths, the wholesale slaughter of extras and a lot of excellent set decoration to recreate the ruins of Stalingrad, the horrific battlefield where two conflicting ideologies committed wholesale murder.

   It may seem okay to American audiences to have the Russians played by English actors, but, accents aside, all the mannerisms seem wrong. Law as the simple farmer turned sharpshooter, Joseph Fiennes as the cultured propaganda officer and Rachel Weisz as the beautiful young soldier girl they love have to play out snippets of class warfare motivation handed to them by the script, but it feels like they're doing it for good old Britannia, not the rotten old USSR. The sex scene between Law and Weisz is full of shiny-eyed wonder, but all that does is help remind that they are cute. Fiennes wears little glasses--sort of like Tom Courtenay as Pasha, the poet turned political zealot in "Doctor Zhivago"--but only succeeds in looking trendy rather than deep. As for Bob Hoskins as Nikita Khrushchev--who will eventually get to head up the whole nasty postwar mess but at this moment in time is just shouting at everyone a lot in the hopes of geeing them up to save it all for old Joe Stalin--he, well, looks and sounds like Hoskins at full throttle.

   Ed Harris--also shining-eyed as well as well-honed and well shoe-shined (actually boot-shined, seeing as he's a Nazi)--as the rival sniper is simply too nice. It's an acceptable acting choice to play this German foe with an undercurrent of dignity and honor, but in a bad movie like this it doesn't work. Why do we care--history or myth, fact or fiction, who lives and dies? Unless, of course, we want to spare Law for being really, really cute.    Starring Joseph Fiennes, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Bob Hoskins and Ed Harris. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Written by Alain Godard and Jean-Jacques Annaud. Produced by John D. Schofield and Jean-Jacques Annaud. A Paramount release. Drama. Rated R for strong graphic war violence and some sexuality. Running time: 131 min.

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