THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


In war, the feuds of countries are carried out by individuals. Two men can try to kill each other on the field of combat and the outcome can make all the difference in the world or no difference at all. This idea is dramatically shown in Enemy at the Gates, a WWII epic directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose works have also included The Bear and Seven Years in Tibet. I've always found Annaud's films rather slow and distant, but this time he is working with a bigger idea and the result is compelling.

Jude Law arrives in Stalingrad to the sound of flying bullets in Enemy at the Gates
Jude Law stars as Vassili Zaitsev, an expert Russian sniper who arrives in Stalingrad just as the Nazis are attempting to capture it. He and the other soldiers come by train and are quickly herded onto a boat, which is then attacked from above by German airplanes. They are sitting ducks. A few try to escape by jumping overboard, only to be assassinated by their own colleagues. Vassili manages to survive and soon finds himself trapped among the wreckage of the city square. He meets a Soviet political officer named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), who is also in hiding from the Nazi troops nearby. Using his expert marksmanship, Vassili is able to pick them off one by one. Danilov is so impressed, he decides to make Vassili the subject of a propaganda campaign to encourage Soviet troops to continue fighting, even though the cause appears to be lost.

Another part of the strategy - which is administered by Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) - includes having Vassili take out as many German officers as he can, thereby weakening their offense. He does the job so well that the Nazis send in Major Konig (Ed Harris), an equally skilled marksman, to take Vassili out. The two men engage in a cat-and-mouse game, each trying to track the other down and deliver a fatal bullet.

Meanwhile, as Vassili's fame grows, Danilov becomes jealous, especially when both men fall in love with a female soldier named Tania (Rachel Weisz). Tania has a strong interest in making sure that Stalingrad does not fall; because he is such a crucial ally, Vassili is a more interesting romantic partner than Danilov.

The love story is certainly interesting and provides a nice background, but the heart of Enemy at the Gates is in the war between Vassili and Konig. The movie is effective because it makes us understand two things: 1.) that the fate of Stalingrad could very well be affected by which man is killed; and 2.) that the dynamic between the marksmen is personal. Although the Battle of Stalingrad is very important to both sides, there is a competitiveness that overrides even that. Vassili is so good at avoiding detection that Konig becomes increasingly determined to outwit him. Conversely, Vassili knows that his life will be in danger as long as Konig is alive; being the victor is the only way to insure another day in the arms of Tania.

There are a number of tense scenes as the two men play out their private war. The best one has Konig trapping an unarmed Vassili in an open space, with only an old stove to provide cover. The scene weighs heavy with the importance of the outcome. Annaud masterfully builds the tension, putting both the personal and the political stakes on the table. Many war movies focus strictly on who will live and who will die; Enemy at the Gates gives its standoffs historical weight. It really does matter who wins, as the fate of Stalingrad rests in the balance. They say that wars are won one battle at a time. This movie explains why that is true.

Law (an Oscar nominee for The Talented Mr. Ripley) and Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) also have a personal battle going on. To their credit, the actors are as believable in the love triangle as they are in combat. Rachel Weisz (The Mummy) is also good, making Tania much more than a generic love interest. She has fire and passion, a desire to fight for what she believes in. That, Enemy at the Gates seems to say, is the kind of outlook that makes a great soldier. Some die and it creates no discernable disadvantage; others die and it's a blow to the team. Either way, each and every soldier has to have a personal stake in the cause for there to be any chance of the country winning.

( 1/2 out of four)

Enemy at the Gates is rated R for strong graphic war violence and some sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.
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