Thursday, March 22, 2001
How does one become an elite military sniper? Easy--just be raised in the Russian Ural Mountains, hide in the snow with your grandfather as kid and practice taking aim at charging wolves. Staying alive--that''s another matter.
Enemy at the Gates brings to life one of the Soviet Union''s 20th-century heroes, a common man from a harsh mountain area who happened to be one of the best sharpshooters in Russian history.
The naive Vassili Zaitsev is thrown unarmed--literally--into the legendary World War II battle of Stalingrad, where only 1,000 out of 500,000 residents remained alive at the Germans'' surrender. The overwhelmed Soviet army has guns for only half its men. "One man shoots, the other man follows with bullets," Zaitsev''s commandant bellows. "When the first gets shot, the second picks up the gun and shoots." Facing German invaders, these are not inspiring words.
As he fights to survive in the bombed-out city, Zaitsev, played with an innocent exuberance by Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley), watches his personal safety gradually endangered by his side''s war propaganda machine, which builds him into an icon of tenacity. After crossing the Volga River under heavy enemy fire and getting through the first German trench in the city, Zaitsev lays in a fountain surrounded by dead men and plots his next move. If the soldiers weren''t shot by Nazis, they retreated and were shot as deserters by their own Soviet leaders. Zaitsev knows he can''t go back.
Also working amid the mud and blood of Stalingrad is political officer/journalist Danilov (Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love), who witnesses Zaitsev''s prowess and helps turn him into a sniping superstar. As Russia''s grasp of Stalingrad falters, Commissar Nikita Krushchev arrives to rally the troops. Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa) captures the gruff head honcho''s gravelly voice and brusque manner. Danilov enthusiastically suggests that Zaitsev be lionized in the newspaper for his exploits to provide hope for other soldiers and citizens holed-up in the city.
Unfortunately, director Jean-Jacques Annaud forgot to include these inspirational gunfights in the first hour of the film, since we only see what Zaitsev has accomplished via old newsreel-style announcements. We do see, however, the Soviet propaganda machine shift into high gear. While certainly crucial to the story, the heavy focus is not helpful in building cat-and-mouse suspense for the impending showdown with Germany''s best sniper, Major Konig.
The impeccably dressed and equipped Konig--played by Ed Harris (Pollock, The Truman Show) using simply a cold, silent stare--has a distinct advantage over the Russian from the beginning, thanks to Danilov''s well-intentioned newspaper articles. Konig knows what Zaitsev looks like, where he goes, and even part of his motivation.
But it''s the eyes that get you in this movie. From Zaitsev''s piercing stare of concentration into a third-floor window where an enemy hides to Konig''s ice-blue menacing daggers as he peers through a gunscope, eyes are always watching, intimidating, searching.
And what''s war without love? Danilov and Zaitsev meet beautiful female soldier Tania in an underground shelter. Rachel Weisz (The Mummy) plays this Moscow-educated spitfire with a good mix of femininity and practicality. Danilov immediately transfers her to an office job near him--to "keep her safe"--while Zaitsev admires her passion for fighting. In typical Hollywood fashion, the woman distracts both men and nearly costs them their lives. The movie gives too much play to the budding romances of these three while trying to maintain tension in the sniper story.
Enemy at the Gates... (* * * )
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Starring:Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz
Where: Galaxy 6, Northridge Cinemas
When: See Movie Times