Worth A Look: 41.86%
Pretty Bad: 16.28%
Total Crap: 4.65%
7 reviews, 87 user ratings
|Enemy at the Gates
by Andrew Howe
“Get used to disappointment”. He probably didn’t realise it at the time, but when William Goldman penned those words for The Princess Bride he crafted a mantra for hardcore moviegoers the world over. Shattered expectations can become a way of life, and if I ever find myself walking that long and lonely highway Enemy at the Gates will shoulder its share of the blame for my disillusionment.When the curtain rises on the latest collaboration between two consistently interesting French filmmakers, with acting duties shared by the likes of Ed Harris, Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes, the runs would seem to be on the board before the match even begins. Sure bets, however, have been the downfall of many a gambling man, and in this instance your losses will amount to the price of a ticket, two hours of your valuable time, and a portion of your dwindling supply of unconditional optimism.
"Aims low, and hits its mark"
Widely credited with helping to turn the tide of the war, the Battle of Stalingrad could provide the source material for a dozen memorable films. The tales of heroism and horror that have risen from its rubble-strewn streets are legion: fighting raged from building to building, to the extent that securing a single room in an apartment complex was considered a major victory, and Hitler and Stalin’s self-serving exhortations to fight to the last saw the slaughter continue long past the time when the city’s tactical significance ceased to exist.
The script concerns itself with the sniper conflicts which developed in the early stages of the battle. German bombing transformed the city into a marksman’s paradise, and Russian recruit Vassili (Jude Law) overcomes his initial fears to become the scourge of any German officer foolish enough to place his faith in inadequate cover (it’s worth noting that most of the victims are also indulging in a relaxing smoke, which suggests that nicotine addiction may have seriously compromised your chances of survival). Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a Russian propagandist, uses Vassili’s body count to transform him into a national hero, which prompts the German high command to despatch their own expert sniper, Konig (Ed Harris), to put an end to Vassili’s reign of terror. The duel between Vassili and Konig occupies the lion’s share of the running time, with the occasional detour into a “lust in the foxholes” love triangle featuring Vassili, Danilov and Tania (Rachel Weisz), a member of the local militia who possesses an inflated estimation of her own combat-readiness.
If I were to leave it at that you’d probably be booking your ticket at the earliest opportunity, and the explosive opening scenes which depict the carnage wrought by the German artillery and Luftwaffe on Russian boats crossing the Volga whet the appetite for another hard-edged meditation on the folly of armed conflict. It’s only about an hour into the film that you realise it’s starting to fall apart, and this understanding arrives when you detect an unusual absence of tension whenever one of the protagonists finds themselves in mortal danger.
When the time comes to script your monument to the men and women who fell during those troubled times, you’re faced with two options. The first is to craft an emotional powerhouse à la Saving Private Ryan, in which the viewer’s investment in the characters rams home the true horror of the human wreckage that lined the road to victory. The second is to cast a detached eye over the proceedings, echoing the dehumanisation suffered by many of those who participated in the slaughter (see The Thin Red Line, Hell is for Heroes and Joseph Vilsmaier‘s German-language Stalingrad for relevant case studies).
That Enemy at the Gates was destined to fall into the latter category should have been obvious from the outset – co-writers Jean-Jacques Annaud and Alain Goddard are not known for investing their scripts with a surfeit of emotion, as anyone who has slogged through The Name of the Rose and Quest for Fire will attest. However, while there’s no law which states that involving characters are essential to the success of a war movie, when your script consists of several one-on-one sniper duels you have to enable the viewer to gain an investment in the fate of the combatants, otherwise the set pieces (which are, by their nature, drawn out, since they consist of endless shots of stony-faced soldiers squinting through their telescopic lenses) will fall flat, and if there’s nothing else of interest going on you’re on a fast-track to tedium.
The script’s failure in this area is a function of both the characters and the setting. The Russian Front doesn’t lend itself to an immediate identification with the allied forces, since most Hollywood films concentrate on the exploits of British and American combatants. One might imagine that the simple fact that they’re fighting the Germans would be reason enough to support the Soviets, but the scriptwriters’ adherence to historical reality ensures it isn’t.
The actions of the allied army in Saving Private Ryan may not have been a textbook example of gentlemanly warfare, but at least it presented a united front. The Russian army, on the other hand, was known to motivate its soldiers by gunning down anyone craven enough to retreat from an entrenched German machine gun, but only when it wasn’t too busy offering its high-ranking scapegoats a choice between suicide and a holiday in Siberia. The film’s depiction of these events ensures that there’s no overriding sense of righteousness to the Russian cause, and when you combine this with a notable absence of German atrocities, identifiable supporting villains and background to the conflict and characters the major players are left to rise or fall on their individual merits.
Which is unfortunate, since they’re a particularly shallow and uninspiring crew. Despite spending two hours in their company, the scriptwriters’ refusal to invest them with histories, motivations, hopes or fears (apart from a fear of violent death, which we could probably have taken as a given) means that at no time do we feel that we know these people, and the absence of likeable characteristics further undermines any attempt to become involved in their plight (this is in stark contrast to the characters in Saving Private Ryan – most of them were allocated half as many lines, but you had a stake in the survival of each and every one of them).
For want of anything better to do, Vassili spends most of his time whining about how he can’t live up to the expectations Danilov has created (it worked for Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, but in that film the messianic subtext was expertly scripted), and Danilov is reduced to shoring up Vassili’s resolve while pacing around various enclosed spaces. Ron Perlman shows up just long enough to make you wonder why the writers bothered scripting his part in the first place (it was designed to prove just how fearsome Konig truly is, a fact which was already well-established), Bob Hoskins wanders in to let us know what a right bastard Nikita Kruschev really was, and Ed Harris conspires to make Konig the most interesting character in the entire film (his ability to capture Konig’s inner torment is so accomplished that there were moments when I almost found myself rooting for a German victory).
Which is not to say that Law and Fiennes turn in poor performances, but the lively and passionate Fiennes suffers from his underwritten role and Law, who isn’t the most expressive soul to begin with, is unable to extract the slightest trace of warmth from his character (I suspect the film may have been improved if their roles were reversed, but I guess we’ll never know). The director also earns a major black mark for allowing Law to retain his British accent – when he raves “I’ll get ‘im for you”, I was half-expecting Arthur Daley to emerge from the shadows and drag him away.
If this wasn’t bad enough, things take a major turn for the worse whenever Rachel Weisz appears on the screen. She takes her performance from The Mummy and drops it wholesale into her portrayal of the delectable Tania, and the result is an annoying, anachronistic turn which proves that she should stick to playing dizzy sidekicks (her attempts at portraying realistic grief are almost laughable).
While the relationship between Tania and Vassili has its moments (a scene in which they use each other’s bodies amidst the squalor is suitably disquieting), Danilov’s dose of unrequited love is difficult to credit. Since they share precious little screen time you suspect that it was included purely to allow the scriptwriters to pen a predictable (and suitably ridiculous) act of stupidity for Danilov at the end of the line, and any suggestion that his actions are the result of a man searching for simple affection in a time of madness stem from my own personal interpretation, rather than anything he actually says or does for the duration.
Despite the above flaws, the film may have been saved by a rousing dose of wartime action. Unfortunately, the plot is entirely predictable – you know from the outset how it’s going to end, and the road to the eventual outcome is not sufficiently diverting to stave off an inescapable sense of ennui. The explosions in the distance alert us to the fact that there’s all manner of interesting events going on over the rise, but instead we’re stuck with yet another dose of one-on-one in which the only unknown variable is which particular sidekick is going to cop the bullet meant for Vassili.
Luckily for the careers of everyone involved, it’s difficult to amass this level of talent and wind up with a complete failure on your hands. Ed Harris is worth the price of admission alone, the opening scenes are arresting (though the incongruous final scene uses up whatever goodwill these powerful sequences earn, and will have most viewers reaching for the bucket), and James Horner’s score is suitably sweeping, even if he does regurgitate much of his work for Glory.But then faint praise, as we know, is damning of itself, and the script undermines whatever strengths the film possesses. Given the calibre of the cast and crew its failure is difficult to condone, and a waste of talent on this scale would, in a just world, earn Annaud and Godard a well-placed bullet apiece.
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originally posted: 07/27/01 13:58:08