For many, Saving Private Ryan has been the measure of the perfect war film in the modern era. Without question the Steven Spielberg film is a milestone in depicting battle on the screen. But I’m going to make the possibly unpopular statement that Enemy At The Gates is a better film, and the standard by which war films should now be measured. The movie is at least almost as good technically as Private Ryan. There are battle scenes that offer the same caliber of shocking reality. And even if this movie falls a little short of the technical marvel that Private Ryan was, this movie captures the human element of war time in a way I hadn’t seen before or since. Certainly all of the necessary hallmarks of the war picture formula are intact. There are plenty of battle scenes and enough ultra realistic bloodletting to satisfy the most insatiable aficionado. But Enemy At The Gates refuses to rely on such brutality to make its point. Instead the hazards of war are merely the atmosphere that allows an excellent cast, under brilliant direction, to bring to life an inspired script.
It’s the heart of World War II. Hitler and his Third Reich are marching across Europe spreading their shadow of fascism and tyranny wherever they go. They have now begun their assault on the young Soviet Union. For the Soviets, troops are weary and supplies are scarce. For the beleaguered soldiers of the Red Army, it is a matter of being shot by the enemy or by your own field commanders should you even think about a retreat. Their mission now is to defend the city of Stalingrad, which bears the name of “The Boss” and stands as a symbol of nationalism to the infant nation. But things are not going well at all. Only every other soldier is armed. The unarmed soldier is admonished to wait until the one holding the rifle is killed to take up arms himself. For these Russian men it is not a matter of if they are killed, but merely when. After a heavy day of fighting, a political officer, Danilov (Fiennes) finds himself pinned down with another young soldier, Vassili (Law). Vassili manages to take out the officers who stand in their way of escape. Danilov decides that Vassili could well be the hero that the Soviet soldiers need. He realizes that fear is not as good a motivator as inspiration. Before long he has written news articles that chronicle the exploits of Vassili as he takes his positions in the city and racks up an impressive score of German officers. Unfortunately, it is not only the Soviet soldiers who hear of these adventures. Vassili comes to the attention of the German brass who bring in their own sharpshooter, the decorated officer, Major Konig (Harris). The two play a dangerous game of cat and mouse in the ruins of Stalingrad. Vassili must also contend with his feelings for an intelligence officer, a young woman named Tania (Weisz). The three become engaged in a love triangle of sorts, causing Danilov to attempt to take down the hero he created. He also begins to doubt the figure he has become to the Soviet people. Konig and Vassili will eventually face each other, and only one of them can survive.
There is little in the way of flaws to mar this movie. The cast is as strong as it gets. Jude Law and Ed Harris develop a chemistry together without ever sharing the screen. They face off from distances of hundreds of yards, but they begin to know each other as if they were sharing the same barracks. You can feel the mutual respect, fear, and hatred the two have for each other. Ed Harris can create intense drama merely by remaining coldly still for minutes at a time. While the love triangle was distracting and totally unnecessary, I found Rachel Weisz to be her usual strong character. I loved the character, but not the story arc. Joseph Fiennes has perhaps the most under appreciated role in the entire movie. He goes through an entire range of emotions that are very real at any given moment. Ron Perlman has an underused role as one of Vassili’s point men for a time. It doesn’t hurt these actors’ performances any that the sets and locations are simply spectacular. The wintry environments are absolutely convincing. What’s even better is to find that it not only holds up well with this high definition release, but it just gets better. The only other flaw the film contains is a pat and artificially happy ending. I’d be happy to see the film end at the point where one or the other falls.
Enemy At The Gates is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. Let me begin by saying you might run into reviews that point out the grain and often misty elements of this film and offer them as complaints against the image quality. That’s how you tell the guys who know what in the heck they’re talking about and those that use the simple “shiny=good” equation to evaluate an image. The grain and misty quality of this film is entirely intentional and absolutely appropriate. There is no way it would be near as effective any other way. So, how do I know this is a good image, you might ask. Just look at the level of detail and sharpness where it counts. Look at the facial detail in those intimate but still moments as these snipers hunt for one another. Take a look at the level of shadow definition in the often dark and gritty scenery. When lighting allows for a cleaner and brighter picture, examine the depth of the Soviet reds in the uniforms and flags. Look at the detail in the rings of an actor’s eyes. That’s how you know this is a solid image presentation. Does it make you feel like you’ve been there, or at least were a witness to any of these events? That’s effective filmmaking. Style that deserves to be preserved in this era of overzealous digital noise reduction we’re getting on too many of these Blu-ray releases. The image is soft when it needs to be and razor sharp when called upon. Learn to embrace these “flaws” and you will truly learn to appreciate quality cinematography.
The Dolby TrueHD Audio track does a terrific job as well. I am as much impressed with the amount of quiet as I am with the aggressive battle scenes that shower us with bullets and ricochets. The score never intrudes. This movie knows how and when to be still. Dialog is usually easy to catch, but understand that in the heat of battle you’re not expected to hear every word. You hear what counts. The ambient sounds and effects do everything necessary to immerse you in this very tactile experience.
Unfortunately, all of the features are in SD. All also were on the DVD release.
Deleted Scenes: These are mostly just character moments that don’t add a great deal to the picture.
Inside Enemy At The Gates: This 15 minute feature includes plenty of cast and crew participation. You’ll get the expected details on the film’s evolution and the research that went on to bring it all off.
Through The Crosshairs: This is more of a promo for most of the 20 minutes. The film clips are included with hyped narration.
This was a film I’ve been anticipating in high definition. I wasn’t disappointed, and you won’t be either. If you have a good and large enough monitor you’ll be whisked away from your armchair and deposited right in the middle of the action. How about that? A war film that manages to capture the essential human element in intimate detail, tell a compelling story, and not once compromise on the action. The formula is actually pretty simple. “The one with the rifle shoots.”