A Russian and a German sniper play a game of cat and mouse during the Battle of Stalingrad. Inspired by the true story of Vasily Zaitsev.
I’m your average millennial, meaning that though I may have a degree, and though I may have years of experience in my field, I do not make enough money to make ends meet with my full time job, so, naturally, I have to supplement with another part time job. That part time job is Family Video, a place that I, at times, revile, at other times, am apathetic towards, and sometimes I actually enjoy. It’s a part time job dealing with the general public; it’s not hard, but it’s not particularly rewarding either. One of the few perks of working at a video store, however, is you get to keep your ear to the rail for films you might’ve missed, or, you might get recommendations from regulars.
This film, “Enemy at the Gates”, came highly recommended from one of my regular customers. I looked at a few reviews and saw that the film had received only middling praise, but I’m a sucker for WW2 movies (let alone WW2 movies based on true stories), and it’s rare in America that we see war flicks from the perspective of the Russians. Beyond that, the cast is pretty stacked. Jude Law (“eXistenZ”) is always solid; Joseph Fiennes (“Risen”), while sometimes hokey, was at the height of his popularity in the late 90s/ early 2000s; I’ve never seen Rachel Weisz (“The Constant Gardener”) give a bad performance; Ron Perlman (“Hellboy”) is always good; and Ed Harris (“A History of Violence”) as a bad guy all sounded like pretty great casting to me. So, after renting this from Family Video, I sat down and begun my (quasi)harrowing journey through Stalingrad.
“We tried so hard to create a society that was equal…”
During World War II, a sniper named Vassili (Law) is sent to Stalingrad, where he gains fame from the articles written about him by Commisar Danilov (Fiennes). Soon, Vassili becomes a hero of Russia, and Germany sends their own highly trained sniper, Major Konig (Harris), to try to eliminate Vassili. Meanwhile, Vassili develops a relationship with Tannia Chernova (Weisz), a Russian fighter.
This is one of those movies that I watched without a modicum of emotion ever passing through my body. There was very little tension during any of the battle sequences; as much as I love Weisz, I thought the romantic connection between Law and Weisz felt shoehorned into the film; and I honestly thought Ed Harris’s character was a more compelling character than Law’s. Additionally, this film didn’t really make it seem like Harris was a bad guy (save for one thing he does near the end) ; he was just doing his job, as was Law. I found myself more interested in how Harris would react to Law vs watching Law do anything at all , and that’s never a good sign if I’m bored with our protagonist.
Honestly, a fair amount of this film feels like waiting, which, in a way it is. Law spends time slowly crawling over rubble, getting in position, and then waiting for his time to pull the trigger. I actually thought some of the parts where Law sneaks about were some of the best parts- they were some of the only moments with tension. The majority of the action in this film is more grounded. There are big action sequences and gunfights, but most of those feel disjointed and poorly choreographed. The only place where this film shines is in the sequences where it’s one v one; Harris V Law. One sniper sequence in particular, set in a tractor factory, was perhaps the best part of the film. The problem was that sequence came about halfway through the movie, and we never really rose to that level of tension again. I felt like after that particular scene, the film really started to drag, and by the end it was practically crawling.
I think my biggest issue with this film is that it had so many things that brought it so close to good, but the film never quite reached that level. The production design in this movie is absolutely amazing. The acting is pretty good from pretty much everybody (I will say Fiennes is a touch melodramatic). The script is where this movie lacks. This movie tries desperately to touch on the failed politics and psychology of the communist party, but instead of sounding smart this movie sounds like it was written by a pseudo-intellectual who has just opened the Communist Manifesto for the first time and is appalled to see Marx and Engels make cases against a nuclear family. Touching on the surface level of why communism failed is easy; Orwell did it with a book about talking animals. This movie thinks its genius by coming to the realization that ‘life isn’t fair,’ and man is ignorant for thinking he can make life equal. No, sh*t, Sherlock. I don’t need Joseph Fiennes to monologue in order for me to get that.
That brings to light another problem. This movie is about how the Russians won the Battle of Stalingrad, and throughout, Finnes’s character is a propaganda machine bent on making Law look more like a hero. A major theme of the film is about how Vissili, the hero of Stalingrad, is bringing hope to the everyday foot soldiers, but at the same time. That is a good theme, and they should’ve just ran with it. This film tries to take an American stance on communism, while still praising Visilli’s actions. In the end, we get a sense that Law is a hero, but a hero for an unjust cause… Is that who we’re supposed to be rooting for?
If you look at “Downfall”, which is a film about the fall of Hitler from the perspective of his secretary, that film looks at the Nazi’s fall as a horrible thing, because it is from the perspective of the Nazis. While the Nazis are not a party I want to support, that film was far more emotional simply because you get to further understand the view of the Nazis. Watching your ideals fall apart is tragic, and “Downfall” highlighted that. This film, in undercutting its themes, makes the whole of the story less impactful. I feel like whoever wrote this film should’ve just left their stupid political comments in their pocket (anyone?), and it could’ve been a better film overall. Or if not a better film, at least it would have been a film that had themes that matched the story.
This is a pretty average movie. Honestly, I was wrestling with whether to give this a 3/5 star or a 2.5/5, and I decided on a 2.5/5 due to the jumbled writing and themes and Fiennes’s incredibly on-the-nose monologue at the end. While I didn’t hate this film, I didn’t love it either. It has none of the traits that make war movies stand out. It didn’t have the emotional connection of “The Thin Red Line”, it has none of the intensity of “Saving Private Ryan”, and it has none of the bravado of “The Great Escape”. This felt like a very average war movie with only trivial offerings; I took what I could from it and absquatulated. I don’t think I’ll be back, but I’m not infuriated that I spent time watching it.
Review Written By: