Since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with history. I love it. I’m unsure why it means so much to me aside from the fact that I hope to make some of my own. Regardless of why, it’s always fascinated me. This same fascination has drawn me to war films time and time again. This was simply the next one.
Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law) is thrown into a desecrated Stalingrad with five bullets and no rifle. This was a thing. The Soviet Union was so sparse on firearms that it had one rifle to every two men and the second was to follow the gunner until he fell and then pick up his rifle. For me, most of the stuff in this film, at least historically, I already knew about. I’m a history buff. However, I did not know about Vasily Zaytsev, one of the greatest snipers of World War II and a hero of the Soviet Union.
I love sniping in video games and have always been a solid shot. There is a dark euphoria to be found in winning a long-range cat-and-mouse contest with deadly consequences. It takes patience and precision, cleverness and reflexes, and picking your shots wisely.
This is one of the reasons American Sniper will be one of my next reviews. I’ve never seen a movie centered on a sniper but I’ve always wanted to experience that.
Enemy at the Gates is a history lesson as much as it is film. In no way am I insinuating that everything in this film is completely accurate because it’s not, but I think few everyday people realize how important the Battle of Stalingrad was nor how desperate it became. The Russians were so frantic that they began throwing bodies at the Germans with shovels and sticks.
Director Jean Jacques-Annaud’s cinematography in its opening stages tries to further this point but never gets as dark and hollow as I feel this history deserved. I find that many directors back away from dark material, as if they are afraid of traumatizing audiences. In my opinion, that shouldn’t be a concern. Saving Private Ryan has remained the greatest war film ever in my opinion for the simple fact that Spielberg feared no consequences. He made a film with no barriers, no limits and pure honesty and while it brought back dark memories for those who served, there’s no denying that Spielberg did justice to them and told it how it was.
That is what I want from my war films: brutal honesty, no sugar-coating or dramatization. Tell it how it is, how it was.
To my immediate recollection, the only films of the last five years that did this were Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor and David Ayer’s Fury. Studios these days can’t get the actors, the reporting and scripting or the budget to give the most telling picture.
Jacques-Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates doesn’t make this list either.
The biggest reason why is that Jacques-Annaud manages to slither his way out of the battle so many times to explore other subplots and outlets that weren’t needed. A cat-and-mouse contest of this magnitude does not require a love story, let alone a love triangle, but I’ll be damned if Jacques-Annaud didn’t spend the entire screenplay smashing this love triangle into a round peg. The idea that love could be found anywhere in such a desolate, dire place is obnoxious and in my opinion, impractical.
The visuals out of the gate were looking good and then, like a baseball announcer commentating on a lady in the stands rather than doing his job and announcing the action on the field, it was taken away. Again, a director decided to make a story something it wasn’t.
There is no need for romance in a story about Russian youth throwing their bodies into German 50 cal’s. Period. There is nothing romantic about that. There is no love on this battlefield or in this crumbling city. There is filth, shattered lives and the snipers that crouch in it, trying to add another body to the trash.
But sure, let’s throw Rachel Weisz in here and have a romance. Whatever.
Let me tell you all something. Of the target audience that gathered to see this war film, NO ONE CARES ABOUT RACHEL WEISZ! Beautiful she may be, but needed SHE IS NOT! Completely irrelevant to what any film-goer wanted, Jacques-Annaud will tell his cinematographers and production crew to talk to the hand while he demonstrates his obsession for Weisz and puts her in front of the camera as much as he can without getting fired by the companies spotting the money for this endeavor.
If I watch one more movie with a needless love story, I’m writing a feature story about it and I’m going to rant about it hardcore because this isn’t fun anymore. It’s getting ridiculous. EVERY MOVIE DOES NOT NEED A LOVE SUBPLOT.
With that mini-rant set aside, the rest of Enemy at the Gates is a solid seven out of ten. The characters are noticeable and acknowledged but not greatly so, the sets and visuals are the greatest achievement of the film and the tension is there at times. Rachel Weisz manages to sabotage the fuel tank though before it could go any further than it did.
This isn’t Rachel Weisz’ fault and I know that. She’s a beautiful actress and I always love seeing her in the Mummy trilogy when it pops up on television. However, because Jacques-Annaud never showed himself on-screen, she was the only person I could project my hate on. I’m sorry, Rachel. It’s not your fault.
The white flag for this film comes at the 45-minute mark when Jacques-Annaud has Jude Law’s Vasily contemplate his life’s meaning, what he’ll be known for and whether he wants to fight anymore at all. This means Ed Harris’ antagonist gets less screen time than he should and even less character development, though the argument could be made that this aspect was intentional. A sniper never knows anything about his adversary nor a soldier his. It’s nothing personal. It’s survival.
I would agree that could have been Jacques-Annaud’s intention if he hadn’t put a set piece in the script that then made it personal, another needless addition. Makes you wonder if this guy ever watched a good war film before.
As I was saying, the 45-minute mark is where the tension and suspense begin to loosen their grasp on the viewer and instead of that, you have a lot of thematic content that’s welcomed but I wish had been delivered in a way other than expositional dialogue to lover, because again, this film doesn’t need love subplots. However, by the 45-min mark, the love story and the cat-and-mouse game reverse roles, with the love story given the spotlight and the war grunge sent to the back. At this point, you have to go with it or shut it off because if you watch it hoping the grunge returns, it doesn’t. A sad fact, but a fact nonetheless.
The love story, despite all of the hate I’ve thrust upon it, does develop into something worthwhile and doesn’t lose my engagement. Rachel Weisz is lovely as always, but the love story also discredits Joseph Fiennes’ character to an absurd proportion, making the love triangle that’s trying to be instituted here seem all the more disparaging.
Once again, if you’re new to my blog, I’ve always ranked movies on a scale of 0-100 (I don’t know why, I just always have). Here’s the grading scale.
80-89 It was a pretty good movie and definitely one worth seeing, but it doesn’t quite scratch my top ten percentile. (The Cable Guy, The Cabin in the Woods, Tears of the Sun, Edge of Tomorrow, The Amazing Spider-Man 2)
50-59 This movie isn’t intolerable but it’s not blowing my mind either. I’m trying really hard to get some sort of enjoyment out of this. (Hercules, The Sentinel, Mad Max: Fury Road, Blitz, The Punisher)
40-49 This movie is just mediocre. It’s not doing anything other than the bare minimal, so morbidly boring that sometimes I’m actually angry I watched this. (The Lost Boys, Zombeavers, Crank, Erased, I, Frankenstein)
30-39 Definitely worse than mediocre, the 30′s ironically define the 1930′s, full of depression, lack of accomplishments, poverty and just so dumb. (Centurion, Planet of the Apes, Stonados, Redemption, Pride and Prejudice)
20-29 What did I just watch? Cliches, stupidity, nothingness, did I mention stupidity? Just…wow. (The Boy Next Door, The Colony, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, The Grey, X-Men: Days of Future Past)
0-19 Watching this movie resulted in one or more of the following: seizure, loss of brain cells, falling asleep/unconsciousness, feel you wasted your time/day, accomplished nothing for you, left the movie knowing less about it then you did going into it, constantly asking yourself why you came to see this movie, or near-death experience. In short, staring at a wall was just as entertaining as watching this movie. This movie deserved a sticker or a label that said, “WARNING: EXTREME AMOUNT OF SUCKAGE.” (Cyborg, Outcast, Sabotage, Gallowwalkers, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil)
My score for Enemy at the Gates: 72.
A film unsure of its tone or what message it wants to promote, Enemy at the Gates has its flaws, but there’s also no denying its set design and themes. The acting from Jude Law to Ed Harris is satisfactory although not at the level I wanted. We’re talking about one of the best snipers of all-time according to what I’ve read and researched and Jude Law is not an actor with a high enough plateau or large enough filmography to do this hero justice. At a basic level, the film works, but it could and should have gone farther than this.