An all-star cast lights up the screen in this riveting epic hailed as "a vivid dramatization of one of history's titanic turning points". (Gene Shalit, Today
) The year is 1942 and the Nazis are cutting a deadly swath through Russia. Under the leadership of Kruschev (Bob Hoskins), the citizens of Stalingrad are mounting a brave resistance, spurred by the exploits of their local hero, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). An expert sniper, Vassili's deeds have become legendary - thanks to propaganda produced by Vassili's best friend, a political officer named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). To stop Vassili, the Germans dispatch their best sniper, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to Stalingrad. When Vassili and Danilov both fall in love with a beautiful soldier (Rachel Weisz), Danilov deserts his friend, leaving Vassili to face his German counterpart alone. As the city burns, Vassili and Konig begin a cunning game of cat and mouse, waging a private war for courage, honor and country.
Like Saving Private Ryan
, Enemy at the Gates
opens with a pivotal event of World War II--the German invasion of Stalingrad--re-created in epic scale, as ill-trained Russian soldiers face German attack or punitive execution if they flee from the enemy's advance. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud captures this madness with urgent authenticity, creating a massive context for a more intimate battle waged amid the city's ruins. Embellished from its basis in fact, the story shifts to an intense cat-and-mouse game between a Russian shepherd raised to iconic fame and a German marksman whose skill is unmatched in its lethal precision. Vassily Zaitzev (Jude Law) has been sniping Nazis one bullet at a time, while the German Major Konig (Ed Harris) has been assigned to kill Vassily and spare Hitler from further embarrassment.
There's love in war as Vassily connects with a woman soldier (Rachel Weisz), but she is also loved by Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), the Soviet officer who promotes his friend Vassily as Russia's much-needed hero. This romantic rivalry lends marginal interest to the central plot, but it's not enough to make this a classic war film. Instead it's a taut, well-made suspense thriller isolated within an epic battle, and although Annaud and cowriter Alain Godard (drawing from William Craig's book and David L. Robbins's novel The War of the Rats) fail to connect the parallel plots with any lasting impact, the production is never less than impressive. Highly conventional but handled with intelligence and superior craftsmanship, this is warfare as strategic entertainment, without compromising warfare as a manmade hell on Earth. --Jeff Shannon