Enemy at the Gates

In Enemy at the Gates, a murky and florid new war drama, Ed Harris plays a revered Nazi sniper named Major König; take the “i” out of that name and you have a Dr. Strangelove character. König has been written as a gentleman assassin, the sort of aristocratic butcher who does his job professionally, without much zeal. Damned if Ed Harris doesn’t find the soft spots in this guy, though. He makes König both iconic and human, an officer without much emotional loyalty to the Third Reich. Since Harris’ scenes are the only ones that stand out in any way, his laconically charismatic performance muddies the waters considerably. He has the aura and presence of a hero, a great man, yet he’s not playing one (much like his star turn in 1987’s Walker, still for me Harris’ best and scariest work).

No, the great man in Enemy at the Gates is supposed to be Russian sharpshooter Vassili Zaitsev, whose skill with a rifle gives the dog-tired Soviet army a lift in spirits after getting their asses kicked by the Nazis. The hometown papers exalt Vassili as a hero, a label he resists; “I can’t carry it any more,” he eventually says, referring to the media-manufactured mantle of greatness. Jude Law, who plays Vassili with none of the wit and suavity he’s shown in films ranging from Gattaca to eXistenZ to The Talented Mr. Ripley, could have been saying the same thing. Vassili’s friend Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), an officer who cranks out Soviet propaganda talking up Vassili’s acumen, performs roughly the same function as the movie itself, which introduces us to Vassili as a boy taking aim at a wolf.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, having gotten himself in over his head with 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet (wherein Brad Pitt was a Nazi soldier who met the young Dalai Lama and learned to, like, chill out and be nice), tries to structure Enemy as a wartime drama far removed from all that troublesome ideology. For most of the film, you forget — as you’re probably meant to — that this is a conflict between Stalinism and Nazism. Here it’s simply two guys who are really good at what they do, waiting for chances to blow each other away. Indeed, since the Russians are all played by Brits — including Vassili’s sweetheart (Rachel Weisz) and even old Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins, acting like he needs a good strong pint) — and the major Nazi is played by an American, the uninitiated might assume the movie is a weird amalgam of World War II and the Revolutionary War.

Annaud, like Ridley Scott before him (Gladiator), should bow in the general direction of Steven Spielberg and give thanks that Saving Private Ryan made it okay to show lots of guys getting their brainpans sprayed all over the mud and still get an R rating, as long as the carnage is in service of the Serious Theme that war is hell. There’s one nice touch that suggests the ruthless economy of war, when the Russian soldiers are allotted only one rifle per every two men, and when an armed man falls, the unarmed soldier trailing him is expected to pick up the weapon. Vassili, of course, is stuck without a rifle and has trouble getting ahold of one. It feels like a synthetic movie detail: jeez, give this guy a weapon, don’t you know he’s the hero?

A lot else in Enemy at the Gates feels synthetic, too. Poor Rachel Weisz is in the movie to prove that Vassili is heterosexual (she needs projects like The Mummy that let her have some fun; not much fun to be had here), and there’s a little Russian kid who goes back and forth between the two rival snipers; his fate brings the plot to a wholly movie-ish face-off between the furious Vassili and the weary König. I will say, though, that the scene gives Ed Harris a juicy opportunity to underplay resignation in the face of death. (If you think that’s a spoiler, you really need to see more movies.) Enemy at the Gates is worth seeing just for Harris’ expression when he realizes that his only equal in the war is about to rearrange the equation. The rest of it is flatulent hero-worship of a man played by a tired-looking actor who deserves funkier roles. Twenty years ago, a young, hungry Ed Harris might’ve played Vassili, and his intensity would’ve burned small holes in our foreheads; today he gets König, and we have to settle for what he does with that.

Explore posts in the same categories: biopic, war

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