During the radical days of the 60s and 70s, I remember a news report of a shootout between the KKK, and a Marxist revolutionary group. My dad wondered aloud if he could contribute bullets to keep it going.
Likewise, my standard answer when someone asks me who I favor in a contest in which I'm not fond of either side is, "Hey it's like the Eastern Front in World War Two. I wish they could BOTH lose."
The challenge of the new movie, "Enemy at the Gates," -- is making us care about a battle between a German and a Russian sniper during the battle of Stalingrad.
(Notice that I said a "German" and "Russian" sniper. Press reports and reviews of this film tend to say a "Nazi sniper" and a "Russian sniper," but NEVER a "German sniper" and a "Communist sniper." Whether this is a holdover from the 1940s style manual in which we wanted to downplay the nature of our Eastern ally, or a leftover overreaction to McCarthyism in which no one can be referred to as a Communist-- even a member of the Red Army-- I can't say. Mark it up to a leftish media bias, I guess.)
The remarkable thing is that "Enemy at the Gates" mostly accomplishes its task without stacking the dramatic deck. If anything, since the main story is from the Soviet side, we are treated to more scenes of brutality by the Communists against their own soldiers than we are to Nazi atrocities.
"Enemy" opens with untrained Russians being herded into the hell of Stalingrad against the modern, formidable, German war machine. Those who retreat from the slaughter, are cut down by machine guns manned by Soviet commissars.
Vassily Zaitsev, (Jude Law) a shepherd from the Urals, survives the massacre, and demonstrates his superb rifle skills to a propaganda officer, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) who decides to make Zaitsev a public hero to build flagging morale. Danilov's scheme works so well that the Germans bring in Major Koenig, (Ed Harris) the head of their sniper school, to hunt Zaitsev.
While Zaitsev and Danilov are historical characters, the question of whether the duel between he and Koenig (some accounts call him Thorvald) actually happened, is a hotly debated topic among historians and sniper enthusiasts. The fact that no mention of him can be found among German records is certainly suspicious, as the Third Reich was notoriously meticulous. There is an account of the final confrontation that is supposedly in Zaitsev's own words; but the heavy involvement of Soviet propaganda officers with Zaitsev makes some view even this with a jaded eye.
But even accepting the premise at face value, "Enemy at the Gates" has some major problems. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Seven Years in Tibet") does a nice job with big tapestries, but flubs most of the small moments. Other than a passionate (fully clothed) sex scene between Zaitsev and a young soldier (Rachel Weisz who is also the object of Danilov's affection, the romantic triangle that strains for "Casablanca" overtones ends up resembling junior high school.
Also flubbed are the last five minutes of the movie. The deck is stacked needlessly by an act of shocking brutality; and a final, rookie mistake by one of the combatants in order to get the men face to face is both dumb, unnecessary, and LESS dramatic than the "real" story.
Instead of the swelling score and big Drama, "Enemy" could have used a little "Three Kings" sardonicism. This is a situation fraught with irony, and though we are treated to plenty of scenes of Soviet brutality toward their own people, a wicked wit could have really exposed what soldiers of BOTH sides were up against in Stalingrad-- a personal duel not just of snipers, but of egos between Europe's two bloodiest dictators. Even the first Rambo flick, "First Blood" realized there is tension in wanting neither MAN to die, even if you want a certain SIDE to win.
Despite it being a Hollywood staple, (James Bond saves the world on a regular basis) "Enemy at the Gates" is about one of the few times in which the fate of the world might actually have been greatly affected by the actions of two men who were not national leaders. For that reason, and the awesome tableau of battle and ruin that is presented, "Enemy at the Gates" is a solid choice for an afternoon bargain matinee.