Thursday, June 08, 2006


RUNTIME: 131 min.
RATING: **1/2

ENEMY AT THE GATES is another resounding war disappointment after the super dud PEARL HARBOR. What is strikingly similar in these two movies is that they lose it when they try to make a TITANIC out of it.
ENEMY AT THE GATES is based on the great battle of Stalingrad which is often credited with turning the tide of the Second World War. In fact there is a fantastic book on the battle by the same name that has been authored by William Craig.
The movie follows the exploits of quite possibly the most hyped (over hyped) sniper in history, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) who is reported to have killed 225 German soldiers. It tries to chronicle the legendary duels between Zaitsev and the famed German sniper Major Erwin Konig (Ed Harris), who’s actual name was Heinz Thorvald. It sort of depicts the effect Zaitsev had on the demoralized Soviet soldiers and how he became a legend much in the mould of the Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace.
What director Jean-Jacques Annaud (SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, THE BEAR) and screenwriter Alain Godard had with them was one bombshell of a material. The epic battle of Stalingrad, the rarely touched topic of the art that is sniping, the rousing tale of Vassili Zaitsev and the rarest of chances to show the Soviets as protagonists are pure dynamite if handles properly.
And needless to say, as it so often happens in Hollywood, everything has been muddled up and stupid inconsequential things have been given priority to make a rank bad movie.
First and foremost history doesn’t speak about any love interest of Vassili Zaitsev. I have always maintained that war is one genre where female involvement has to be kept to a minimum. It needlessly creates an extra angle that leads to little or no consequence and often wastes a movie. Think of all the great war movies- SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, THE THIN RED LINE, APOCALYPSE NOW, FULL METAL JACKET, PATHS OF GLORY, PLATOON and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Female characters have little or no part to play in these movies.
Now think of the worst and the most pretentious war movies- PEARL HARBOR, THE DEER HUNTER and CASULATIES OF WAR. All of them have a female character as their “crowning glory”.
I just cannot understand the rationality behind the screenplay of ENEMY AT THE GATES. Why so much footage is wasted over a stupid love angle that doesn’t’ work is beyond my comprehension. And to be frank the movie doesn’t work on that level either. It is a colossal failure both as a love story and as a study of friendship, thanks to some pathetic character development. There is so much to show in Zaitsev’s story right from sniping duels to the battle of Stalingrad. Instead the movie prefers to waste valuable time and footage over inert relations and hopeless melodrama.
In a time when Hollywood is coming up with such beautiful intelligent and multi-dimensional war movies like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and THE THIN RED LINE it is unbelievable how corny and clichéd everything is in ENEMY AT THE GATES. When Vassili asks Tania (Rachel Weisz) as to why she’s joining the sniper division she replies with age-old cliché-“My mom and dad were shot by the Germans.” And she rants on as to how it happened. Such stupid turns at evoking audiences’ sympathy, I daresay, will never work.
The whole turn of events involving Danilov turning against Zaitsev because of the love angle is so outrageously absurd that it makes you want to tear your hair apart for such a fantastic material is being wasted. And when he repents and gives his life is so stupidly clichéd. I don’t know how many times I have to use the word cliché but these movies deserve that. They are severely stricken with clichés. The whole angle of the relationship between Vassili and Danilov doesn’t work at any level.
As a result of all these useless meanderings of ENEMY AT THE GATES the main draw i.e. the sniping duel between Konig and Zaitsev is a drag. It begins on a good enough note but turns into something that is outlandishly stupid and low on I.Q. Any man with a little bit of logic and imagination could point out that the depictions of the duels are so stupid. In one of the lowest on I.Q. sniping sequences Major Konig is shown to have Vassili in his scope. But just then a German soldier comes in his way and tampers with all the dead bodies around. After he goes Konig loses him. How did the director think that anybody in the audience is ever going to buy such a stupid thing? I can bet all my money that even after 5 minutes of that scene every single soul in the theatre could exactly pin-point the location of Zaitsev. But not Konig. The sniping duels are not explained properly and leave a lot to the imagination.
Jude Law is absolutely ineffective as Zaitsev. He was a legend, a figure whose name probably inspired millions of soldiers to fight. So there needs to be an aura about him. Jude Law has no such quality in him and the screenplay doesn’t help him either. What was required was someone with the abilities of a Peter O Toole or Matt Damon who can get into the skin of the character. In fact Christian Bale would have been wonderful as well.
Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes ate best average. I just want to know as to when Weisz can stop being a British woman. Everything about her is so plastic. And Joseph Fiennes performance is one by numbers. You ask him to be happy, he is happy, you ask him to be sad he will be sad. He does all that in the movie with no consistency to the character. But rather than being harsh on the actors it is fair to say that the fault rests with the atrocious screenplay. An actor can be only as good as the film. I guess there are only a few actors who can rise above the mediocrity of a movie and elevate it. But that would be too much to expect from this cast.
How often does it happen that the best performer in a bad movie is the villain. And it sure is a sign of huge problems when you feel for and root for a ruthless Nazi sniper. But Harris as is so often is fantastic. He has this uncanny ability to look the part whether it is his Academy award nominated turn as flight director Gene Kranz in APOLLO 13, the general in THE ROCK or the diseased husband in THE HOURS.
You can always tell the quality of the movie by the way it portrays its historical figures. The way Nikita Khrushchev is shown is really disappointing. For god sake give some depth to these characters. Just asking him to shout at the top of his voice is something really stupid. And yeah, Khrushchev was a lot taller than Bob Hoskins.
The movie leaves a lot to be desired in every principal element of movie-making. A couple of battle scenes are thrown here and there God knows for what reason. Maybe he wants to make sure that the audience still remembers that we are in the middle of World War II and not a love story. There is no purpose in the movie.
The battle of Stalingrad and Vassili Zaitsev deserve a lot better.

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