With its epic backdrop, story of larger-than-life courage under fire, shamelessly “Schindler’s List”-ripping score (by Oscar winner James Horner), and award-anointed cast (Academy Award nominees Jude Law and Ed Harris as well as Joseph Fiennes, star of the Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love), Jean-Jacques Annaud’s fact-based WWII drama “Enemy at the Gates” practically screams “Oscar vehicle”–a thought further reinforced by the blatant award-grabbing tone of its trailer. Why then, is this film being released in the dead of spring instead of its originally intended late December berth? Paramount’s official reason was that the film was not ready, a comment that actually speaks much truth about the finished product itself: it certainly looks the part of an important film, but inside it’s not prepared to follow through on its grand ambitions.
The irony of “Enemy at the Gates” is that if Annaud and writing collaborator Alain Godard scaled down those ambitions and narrowed their focus, the film would have been better for it. At its core is an interesting and sometimes suspenseful cat-and-mouse between military sharpshooters on opposing sides. On the heroic end is Vassili Zaitsev (Law, in full charismatic movie star mode), a sniper for the Soviet Army who has become a symbol of hope for his country’s people, thanks to press exploits carefully orchestrated by his best friend, political officer Danilov (Fiennes). Called on to end Vassili’s unmatched hit streak against the Nazis is Major Konig (Harris), no less than the best marksman in Germany. Their battle of bullets and, above all, brains fuel what are the film’s best scenes, tense showdowns where making the slightest wrong move could mean a bullet in the head.
Cerebral confrontations, however, do not make for a mass appeal film, so Annaud and Godard shoehorn in a romantic subplot–an understandable move, but not a completely forgivable one when the execution is as sloppy and uninvolving as it is here. Tania (Rachel Weisz), a German-speaking Russian Jew who prefers duty on the front lines to a safer desk position, would have been a fairly innocuous token love interest for Vassili if the script didn’t strain so hard to craft a triangle between them and Danilov. Perhaps this was done to give the barely-used yet top-billed Fiennes his contract-dictated amount of screen time, but surely that could have been accomplished without such a distracting, manufactured plot conflict.
More artificiality comes in the accents–or, rather, lack thereof. Law, Fiennes, Weisz, and everyone playing a Russian character speaks in a British accent, even Yank actor Ron Perlman. On the other side, Konig bears Harris’ natural American accent, which would suggest that some strange type of coding is at work: Russian = British, German = American. But that is obviously not the case when Konig’s most prominent comrade speaks in Brit-inflected tones as well.
Strangely enough, however, the greatest virtue of “Enemy at the Gates” is the air of authenticity in its depiction of the warfront. The battle scenes are impressive, blowing up the massive and massively detailed sets with maximum firepower (even if the spirit of Saving Private Ryan is obviously conjured up in the process), and Annaud doesn’t shy away from the grit of the experience: the dirt and grime are as plentiful as the blood that spurts out from every freshly pierced skull. But the film never penetrates like those many bullets do, and what’s remembered in the end are just some striking images and sequences and just about none of the narrative that came with them.