Jean-Jacques Annaud's previous work doesn't make him the obvious choice to direct a big-budget war movie like "Enemy at the Gates" (IMDb listing). This is the guy who brought "Quest for Fire" and "The Bear" to the screen, so the simple fact that he's working with actors who talk puts him outside his oeuvre.
Nevertheless, Annaud does an admirable job holding "Enemy" together. His minimalist leanings work to the film's advantage by keeping characters and plot lines in check, thereby heightening the central duel between a Russian sniper (Jude Law) and a Nazi marksman (Ed Harris).
Set during the six-month Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43, "Enemy" is based on the true story of Vassili Zaitsev (Law), a young Russian soldier whose rifle skills become a wartime asset and a Soviet propaganda tool. Zaitsev is built into a hero by Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a political officer who realizes that hope and heroism, even when fabricated, are the keys to winning a war. The camaraderie between the men is tested when both develop yearnings for Tania (Rachel Weisz), an educated Russian woman who volunteers to fight the Nazi invaders. A love triangle amidst death and cluster bombs is hard to manage by itself, but complications increase when the Nazis send their best sharpshooter, Major Konig (Harris), to kill Zaitsev and pop the Soviet balloon of heroism. While Stalingrad is bombarded, Zaitsev and Konig hunt one another, waiting for that one mistake that opens their adversary to a kill shot.
Going into this film, Annaud had to know that "Enemy's" greatest strength would be the cat-and-mouse tension between the snipers. He wisely resists the urge to juxtapose the brute force of the ongoing battle with the clever, intelligent pursuit between the two snipers. But Annaud doesn't make "Enemy" as taut as it could have been. He misses the opportunity to engross the viewer, to surprise you with an unexpected masterstroke. In the hands of a director like Jonathan Mostow, who built "Breakdown" and "U-571" into honed thrillers, "Enemy" could have amazed. What's missing are the subtle sounds. When Zaitsev and Konig are hunting, we should hear the crunch of their leather boots, the occasional clacks of their rifles, the brief rustling of their uniforms. Annaud does this at times, but it's too blunt.
Bluntness also mars Joseph Fiennes' performance. The overacting he unveiled in "Shakespeare in Love" made sense for that role after all, he was a smitten playwright. But as Danilov in "Enemy" Fiennes' furrowed brow and robust speechmaking are out of place, especially when set against the calm of Law, Weisz and Harris. Granted, Fiennes is playing a master propagandist, so flourishes of bombastic hand-waving are acceptable, but bringing this energy to every scene doesn't work because "Enemy" is a deliberate film.
Jude Law and Rachel Weisz, on the other hand, use "Enemy" to distinguish themselves. With this film, Law proves he can carry a picture. He plays Zaitsev with confidence, bringing out Zaitsev's methodical skill as well as his fear. A flimsy performance from Law would have been steamrolled by the ever-steady work of Ed Harris, but Law matches his co-star and gives "Enemy" the equal-vs-equal foundation it needs to succeed. Weisz, best known for "The Mummy," also holds her own. She's a beautiful actress, but beauty alone isn't enough to carry this role. Weisz turns Tania into the remarkable woman she needs to be, making it clear why Zaitsev and Danilov immediately fall for her.
Ed Harris, by far the most distinguished member of the cast, deserves acclaim for finding the center of his ambiguous character. Fault lies with the director, Annaud, for peppering Konig with contradictory actions. He's cold and skilled, but non-conformist. He speaks of his son, but is capable of detached cruelty. Had Harris been given more room he might have seized these contradictory elements for a multi-faceted performance, but the role is limited by screentime. Yet Harris holds the strings together with his presence. When Konig stares through his rifle scope, the steel-blue eyes of Ed Harris reflect more about the character than anything written in the script.
Despite a few omissions, Annaud deserves praise for bringing "Enemy" through its two-plus hours without succumbing to cliché. He could have played it for patriotic fervor, but he limits the political grandstanding. Likewise, Annaud resists the temptation to dive head-first into action. There are plenty of bombs and bullets, but we never forget that the only bullet that counts is the one that ends the duel.
Reviewer's Note: For those who consider language representation a selling point, I have it on good authority that the German used in "Enemy" passes muster. Use this information as you will.
Filmfodder Grade: B+