Enemy at the Gates flounders from its decision to throw in a superfluous love triangle and its lame attempt to offer some politically correct criticism of Socialism, but give the film credit for bringing the most crucial battle of WWII to the mainstream screen. Contrary to what American history books promote about America's pivotal role on the European front, this battle took place between the Germans and Russians in Stalingrad.
After a brief prologue with a boy, grandfather, and wolf in the Ural Mountains, the action begins much like Saving Private Ryan with real life Russian hero Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law) braving a chaotic crossing of the Volga River into Stalingrad. Knowing the final results, it's difficult to imagine the Russians standing up to the Germans from that initial scene. The Germans are destroying the city and the crossing boats while the disorganized Russians serve as target practice and shoot their own soldiers when they attempt to desert the doomed boats. They don't even have enough rifles for every soldier, pairing soldiers up so that one can grab the rifle of the other as soon as he gets killed.
Vassily miraculously defies the odds of being slaughtered while carrying only ammunition and hiding among the dead until he meets up with Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). Calling on his Ural hunting experience, Vassily uses his superior thinking skills and unbelievably accurate rifle skills to knock off a handful of Nazis, giving birth to a legend. Stalingrad may be a bombed out heap of rubble, but its stubborn citizens refuse to give in to the Nazis automatically.
No Shakespeare this time, Fiennes' character is a propaganda journalist who seizes the opportunity to promote giving the Socialists hope by supplying a hero for Stalingrad during horrific winter of 1942-43. An intrigued Nikita Krushchev (Bob Hoskins) approves, and Danilov prints daily kills and stories of his new friend Vassily. Naturally these pamphlets vex the Nazis, frustrated by the steadfast refusal of the Stalingradites to surrender and by the daily losses of officers to the snipers. So they send in their top gun sniper Major Koenig (Ed Harris), who soon finds that he can predict Vassily's next location by supplying chocolate to young Sasha (Gabriel Thompson).
Ed Harris creates an effective steely-eyed villain, a cunning and ruthless Nazi in the sniper "chess match" that we especially want to see him lose before he makes another wretched tortured artist film. Harris underplays quietly this time much more effectively in this stereotypical role than he does as a slobbering, ranting lead character.
Harris ends up standing out in the film because all the characters are little more than cardboard figures in a giant folk myth about Stalingrad's most horrible and heroic period. Jude Law uses his screen charisma to his advantage in this wartime High Noon, but there is little in Alain Godard's film to make us feel that the story is real until the closing credits when the film reveals that Vassily Zaitsev really was a sniper hero during the pivotal siege.
The film itself goes to great lengths to prove otherwise. It feels like fable. Are we really supposed to believe that the entire Russian strategy relies solely on the success of Vassily and on the propaganda efforts of Danilov to give Stalingrad's residents hope? So much so that Vassily receives bundles of fan mail to which he must respond despite his relative illiteracy. Adding to the absurdities the film has all the Russians speak English with British accents, and tacks on a love triangle subplot with beautiful Russian Tania (Rachel Weisz) falling mutually for Jude Law while Fiennes unrequitedly pines for her.
Enemy at the Gates smells of Hollywood marketing sabotage. The story isn't strong enough to stand on its own like Saving Private Ryan, so the filmmakers throw in a little sexual interest to draw a larger multiplex audience. Additionally, it's acceptable to have a Russian hero now that the Cold War is over (as long as he speaks perfect English), but Hollywood blatantly blunts any latent support of Socialist philosophy. We certainly don't want another Red scare creeping up on us in a conservative administration! How else do we explain Fiennes' conclusion at the end that egos are always involved, and that the Socialist ideal is unworkable?
The film isn't a horrible experience, and for the first time an American distributed mainstream film at least gives credence to the supreme heroism that the people of Stalingrad played in Hitler's downfall. Unfortunately, Annaud should have copied more than the opening sequence of Spielberg's war drama. Much more character development and depth would vastly improve this Enemy at the Gates, instead of playing to shallow American movie stereotypes and relying on Jude Law's good looks and any residual hatred some of us may harbor towards Ed Harris for his bloated Pollock performance.