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IN SHORT: an ultra-intelligent war story though great production values sap some needed tension. [Rated R for strong graphic war violence and some sexuality. 131 minutes.]
The Soviet Union may have ultimately fallen because it was a repressive and corrupt perversion of a political philosophy formed in the cauldrons of nineteenth century industrial exploitation of the working class that had no ability to adapt to the technological changes of the twentieth century, but we think it fell because of the music. There is nothing like the military style chorus music that washes back and forth in the soundtrack of Enemy at the Gates to make you glad that the good guys, in this case the Russians, ultimately vanished from the face of the earth.
Enough about politics. Enemy at the Gates is a war story. Russians versus Nazi Germany with a bit of class warfare and a competition for the hand of a woman tossed in for good measure. Under the guidance of director (and co-scriptor, with Alain Godard) Jean-Jacques Annaud, Enemy at the Gates this is a story that takes its sweet time to play out, but puts its money on the big screen. If ever there was a grander recreation of what a major city looked like in the middle of a siege, which is what the Battle of Stalingrad seems to have been, we haven't seen it. Then again, making war movies in which the heroes are Soviets is something relatively new to these American eyes. This European production doesn't have to do much to get the point across to a continent that is still wracked by war but the production values, added to the fact tat the story compresses three months of time into two hours of big screen pictures, hampers the tale. But just a little bit..
Stalingrad, as we learn from the preface to this story, was all that stood between Hitler's armies and control of the Russian oil fields to the East. Control of those fields would have provided enough fuel and resources to the Reich that the War would have, essentially, been over. The Nazi forces have trucks and tanks and bombers and tons of ammunition. The Russians have one carbine rifle for each soldier; the gunless soldiers get a handful of bullets and orders to pick up the guns of the fallen. Their commanding officers bravely watch the back lines, manning machine guns with which to shoot down the "deserting" conscripts.
In this "no win situation" the first soldier we meet is political officer commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) whose job is to write propaganda for the huddled masses. With the bad luck to be caught in a battle zone, Danilov's doom is a certainty, until he passes his rifle (grabbed from one of the dead) to a "gunless" one, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). Five dead Nazis later, Russia is about to crown its newest Hero of the Motherland. At the urging of his boss, Nikita Kruschev (Bob Hoskins), Danilov uses radio and what remains of the press to turn Vassili into a national hero. Both fall in love with Tania (Rachel Weisz) whose mom Mother Filipov (Eva Mattis) and brother Sacha (Gabriel Marshall-Thomson) are also involved in the war effort. The last of our good guys is Koulikov (Ron Perlman), veteran sniper and Vassili's closest ally. Koulikov has no teeth, and that story underscores the utter incompetence and paranoia of the entire Soviet system.
On the other hand there is Nazi Major Konig (Ed Harris), an aristocratic old school type. Unlike the pompous officers with which he serves, Konig is a killer. His eyes are cold, his trigger finger is steady and he is a lot smarter than his assigned target. It doesn't take Vassili long to learn that, eventually, he will lose the competition. He discerns that from demonstrations of Konig's skill. What the Russian doesn't know is that there is a traitor within his own forces, feeding detailed information to the Nazis.
That's all you need to know. We've laid out what bothered us about Enemy at the Gates above. In the grand scheme of things, they are minor points in a very well crafted war story. It's a difficult thing to have a story in which the two characters can't physically confront each other in the classic John Wayne on a deserted street style. When the two do face each other, there's a nice touch that visually communicates how much they know about each other.
We haven't mentioned "the love story" because it's important in more ways than you could possible imagine. We're not even going to give you a hint.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Enemy at the Gates, he would have paid...
Pace and music are the negatives. Most will have no problem ignoring the music.
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