Enemy at the Gates

As “Enemy at the Gates” worked toward its finale, I jotted “A-” — the grade I intended to give it — on my notepad. It had its flaws, but was overall a riveting, meticulous war story that gripped its audience and wouldn’t let go.

Then, after the movie should have ended, there was a “two months later” epilogue. Awe-struck at the dreadfully trite ending that was being tacked on, I scribbled out “A-” and wrote “B.” As with many college classes, the final really does count for a big part of this movie’s grade.

It’s not that the ending is a “Sixth Sense”-style twist that changes everything. It’s merely an added plot detail that goes against logic and is overly sentimental. You honestly could walk out before it happens and not lose anything; in fact, I would encourage that. (Then e-mail me, and I’ll tell you what happened.)

Based on a true story, “Enemy at the Gates” takes place in the fall of 1942, with Stalingrad holding out as Russia’s last hope against the Nazis. Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a farm boy from the Urals, emerges as Russia’s finest sharp-shooter, able to lie motionless for hours at a time, fixed on a target until an opportunity to strike arrives. He never misses, and he never just wounds anyone.

Russian political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) knows that the soldiers, who are being mowed down by the Germans at an alarming rate, need someone to fix their hopes on; Vassili can be the one.

Soon Vassili is a celebrity whom peasants pray for, and the number of German officers he’s killed is updated daily in the newspapers. He is, it seems, winning the war single-handedly — or at least keeping Stalingrad out of the Nazis’ hands a bit longer.

This draws the attention of the Germans, who send their best sniper, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to Stalingrad to stop him. The result is a series of duels, with each man knowing the other is somewhere nearby, waiting for his shot. Konig will hole up in a bombed-out department store while Vassili lies camouflaged in the rubble outside. Neither one breathes or moves. They wait. They try to trick each other. It is incredibly suspenseful.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud has an unwavering eye for detail (in the action, anyway; I can’t speak to the accuracy of Stalingrad geography or historical facts, both of which are irrelevant). Sunlight streams in through what used to be a factory wall, clearly marking death if Vassili or his partner (Ron Perlman) steps in front of it. Broken glass shows Vassili’s reflection to Konig. Dozens of Russians are slaughtered in a percussive “Saving Private Ryan”-inspired opening sequence on the Volga River, vividly playing up the contrast between deafening mass destruction and Vassili’s silent one-on-one warring. There are many point-of-view shots and close-ups that draw a viewer in without drawing attention to the director.

Then there’s the unnecessary romance that almost botches the whole thing up. Tania (Rachel Weisz) is a die-hard soldier whom Danilov falls in love with. His love is unrequited, though, as she is more interested (as is the whole country) in Vassili. Vassili soon returns her affections, and next thing you know they’re having discreet, silent sex while their fellow soldiers lie sleeping all around them.

Talk about your tacked-on subplots! You could literally cut out every scene with Tania and not hurt the movie; in fact, you’d help it significantly. The romance is not convincing enough to be moving. It only distracts.

Fiennes’s final-moments diatribe against communism is unnecessary, too. Look, guys, just because the Russians are the good guys here doesn’t mean you’re promoting communism. No one was going to accuse you of that.

Law’s performance is powerful, though Harris’s steely-eyed (but friendly-looking) glare makes him a mite better. Fiennes, too, is good in a thankless role, and Bob Hoskins growls enjoyably as Nikita Khruschev.

When you see the words “Two Months Later” appear on the screen, be courageous and walk out. The movie will resonate more and affect you more deeply leaving things as they are.

B (; R, abundant bloody war violence, some sexuality,.)