As most fine war movies are apt to do, Enemy at the Gates depicts the brutality of mortal conflict and nullifies any glamour that might be associated with war. The story begins with a grisly battle in which Russian officers kill their own men for refusing to fight, as artillery rips violently through human flesh. This opening scenario seems to set a grand stage, but instead of building upon it, the movie quickly slides downhill from there.
Set during World War II, Enemy at the Gates is the story of a Russian solider named Vasilli (Jude Law) and his rise to glory. Starting at the lowest ranks of the army, Vasilli's exceptional skill as a marksman quickly gains him notoriety on both sides of the conflict: to the Russians, he is viewed as an inspiration and a hero; to the Germans, he is a dangerous outlaw who assassinates their officers. Major Konig (Ed Harris), a decorated officer of the German military, is also an accomplished sharpshooter, and he makes it his personal crusade to rid the world of Vasilli. The story culminates in a showdown between these two expert marksmen of the warring armies.
Along the way, Vasilli has personal conflicts at home. His good friend and confidant Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) insists on idolizing him in the press so as to give some hope to the Russian army, but Fiennes eventually becomes jealous of the hero his words have given birth to. Animosity between the two friends quickly explodes when they both have eyes for the same woman (Rachel Weisz). Vasilli, for his part, is a reluctant hero who is not sure if he is up to the task of being a living legend.
This may sound like the start for some deep character development, but it's not. The love triangle between Rachel Weisz and the two men that are in love with her never amounts to anything more than a badly written, token romance between wooden characters. These elements are only bad distractions that take away from the core military drama--a military drama that is not that strong to being with.
While it is interesting to see the Russians portrayed as the good guys in a war movie for once, they achieve this status only at the expense of the easiest targets of modern history--the Nazis. Although very few would support Hitler's vision, I think many movie fans realize that making Nazis unredeemingly evil villains without depth is too easy--it has been done too often in cinema, and is old news by now. Ed Harris' character could have given white supremacy a face, just as Ed Norton's skinhead persona did in American History X, but the writers instead have opted to mute him. As a result, the Nazi is never anything more than a one-dimensional opponent with which Vasilli can have a faceoff.
Like Quills, Enemy at the Gates is a period drama that loses credibility because of a basic oversight: almost everyone sounds English. For a movie that is supposed to be populated by Russians and Germans, there's not a single damned person that sounds either Russian or German, with the possible exception of Bob Hoskins as Nikita Khrushchev (and even he apparently gives up halfway through his performance). Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law both sound primly English. Ed Harris sounds American. And in a dizzying mix of nationalities, Rachel Weisz is a German actress playing a Russian officer who sounds like an English schoolgirl.
The conclusion of the movie is disappointing, with Law and Harris confronting each other in a final showdown that feels like it's from an old western rather than a war film.
Enemy at the Gates is a visually impressive epic, but it suffers from characters that feel like they've been plucked from a soap opera (an English one, of course, given the accents). And unless you're watching this one from a Russian perspective, it can't inspire the patriotism or nostalgia of a war film like Saving Private Ryan.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)