Posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2021 by Eric Vespe
(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)
The Movie: Enemy at the Gates
Where You Can Stream It: Hulu, Paramount+
The Pitch: A Russian sniper faces off against Germany’s top marksman in a tense and deadly game of cat and mouse during the height of the Nazis’ power.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: A spectacular cast under the direction of Jean-Jacques Annaud create an old-fashioned war thriller that got lost in the wake of Saving Private Ryan. And you get Ed Harris as a ruthless, cruel Nazi sniper, which by itself makes this worth a watch.
Based on real historical events, this tense and dark war thriller is all about the Russian forces standing between Third Reich and its eastward expansion, specifically one incredibly great rifleman.
Jude Law plays Vassili Zaitsev, a man thrust into the role of war hero after his skills with a rifle are revealed. It’s not just about his kill count (which is ridiculously high… the real Zaitsev is credited with over 250 enemy kills in the war), it’s the hope he rekindles in a demoralized army that is outmatched by one of the most terrifying forces the world has ever seen.
My generation wasn’t really taught much about the role the Russians played in World War II — most likely because my schooling straddled the final days of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, so giving Russia any credit wasn’t exactly a high priority for those building the curriculum — but they were crucial to the Allied victory and at huge human cost. It’s estimated that Russia lost 15% of its population in the war.
But it’s tough to portray Soviets as heroes in American films, even today, so that makes Enemy at the Gates fairly unique as a Hollywood feature.
The movie is at its best when it gets into the cat and mouse game at the center of the story. Zaitsev is so good at his job that he gains the attention of a German counter-sniper named Major Konig, played by the always dependable Ed Harris. They respect each other, lay traps for each other and the game gets more and more ruthless as the Battle of Stalingrad wages on.
Annaud puts reality at the forefront in these sniper duels. It’s a quiet game of inches, where every breath or the slightest movement can give you away to your enemy.
I saw this film upon release and I remember most of my critic friends mostly making fun of the accents in the movie, which I think kinda misses the forest for the trees. Yes, it’s a movie about Russian and German soldiers played solely by American and British actors, but I like the fact that they don’t try to put on an outrageous Russian or German accent.
There’s a romantic triangle between Law, Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes that works well and results in one of the most awkward and unique sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie, but ultimately that’s not what’s appealing about the movie.
It’s the evenly matched snipers hard at work trying to kill each other that sets this movie apart. The film doesn’t shy away from the misery of war. Everybody is filthy and freezing. Nobody is safe, even children or a metal-mouthed Ron Perlman. All that and more grounds this movie so that when the snipers are doing their thing you’re sitting there with a knot in your stomach knowing that things can go bad at the drop of a hat.
Enemy at the Gates is a hell of a tense movie that just doesn’t really feel like they make any more. It’s not a CGI fest, there’s no gimmick to the storytelling… It’s just content to live in this world and slowly ratchet up the tension.
Underrated, captivating, unflinching and it’ll keep you on the edge of your seat. I highly recommend it.
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