When a director decides to make a film of great extremes, one that features two distinctly different kinds of storytelling, it would be a good thing to get the right idea of which one to focus on, at least as far as general audiences are concerned. In the case of this based-on-fact story of some occurrences in the battle-torn city of Stalingrad in the midst of World War II, the choices are between a big, pumped up, action-filled war film and a cerebral character study of two people on opposite sides being forced together.
Although this is a well-made, finely acted film, when it's over, the feeling just doesn't go away that director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, The Bear) didn't make the right call. Enemy at the Gates starts out full throttle. It's September, 1942, and Germany is spreading its evil wake toward the Russian port city. The screen is filled with pandemonium as new Russian recruits are literally thrown into the fray of bullets flying and bombs dropping all around them. A horrific battle scene unfolds amid the scarred and smoke-filled city, and because there aren't enough guns for the soldiers, their commanding officers shout out above the din that those who are unarmed must wait for those who are armed to be killed, then grab their guns and continue the charge. It looks like this is going to be a big, bloody, noisy movie.
Then the story begins, in which two survivors of the battle, Vassili (Jude Law) and Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), happen upon each other just as the Germans go about setting up shop in the ruins. Vassili turns out to be a crack shot with a rifle, a perfect sniper -- expertly taking out a small cadre of Nazis one at a time -- much to Danilov's delight because he intends to write about it in his Soviet army newspaper.
A cameo appearance by a foul-mouthed Nikita Khrushchev (terrifically played by Bob Hoskins), sent to the front lines by Stalin to "take things in hand," gives Danilov the idea to pick up falling army morale by turning Vassili into a hero. Well, let's hear it for the power of the press. Once Vassili's picture and story makes the regular newspapers, he does become a sort of folk hero. When he finally meets up with the brave and valiant fighter Tania (Rachel Weisz), she already knows who he is.
The film takes its next turn away from what it seemed to be about in the opening frames with the introduction of Major Konig (Ed Harris), a Nazi sniper who is sent to Stalingrad to kill Vassili before he can kill any more important Nazis.
And here is where the character study begins -- and where the film's focus remains. The interesting part of the script is that it suggests that there's a special understanding, a shared knowledge between snipers, even if they're on different sides. But that knowledge and understanding is the result of doing the job over and over, for long periods of time. And the film goes out of its way to show this in "action." Actually, after all of the action at the beginning, there is none now. It all turns out to be an exercise in waiting, of long silences while each sniper finds a new place to hide among the bombed-out buildings, hoping to catch his target unaware.
The truth is, the film becomes kind of boring. Oh, there are side stories that attempt to build up some fire. There's a romance that never gets off the ground between Tania and Danilov. There's a romance that manages to build up a bit of heat between Tania and Vassili. There's what's supposed to pass for a bout of jealousy between the two men over her, but it's not properly developed. And there are other people and events getting caught up in the war as Vassili's story is told.
An unconvincing look at a young boy siding up with the German sniper only adds a little emotional frustration. And then there's some business about Vassili being dead, then suddenly not being dead, with none of it ever being explained, that will no doubt confound the audience, making them wonder why this annoying little sidebar is in the film in the first place.
The main thing wrong with the film is the abrupt change in pacing, from the early excitement to the latter scenes of waiting. And even during a couple of battle sequences near the end, the film tends to drag. The biggest question, though, is why does the film even pretend to veer off into a story of romance when none of the attraction between any of the people is either explained or understood. Cut that distraction out, and maybe the waiting stuff would be easier to take.