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"Enemy at the Gates" is not your typical war movie, and that's what makes it so compelling.

Epic Duel

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For all its bombed-out locales and epic scenes of battle, "Enemy at the Gates" takes its heart from those tall tales of the Old West. Joseph Fiennes may be a political commissar who uses propaganda to fuel the pride of World War II Russian soldiers, and Jude Law may be the sniper hero of the Siege of Stalingrad, but they are merely clever updates on the dime novelist and his gunslinger. And in true pulp-fiction fashion, when word of the gunslinger/hero's actions spread, it isn't long before another sharpshooter rolls into town to challenge him.

Set in one of World War II's bloodiest campaigns — and without a G.I. Joe in sight — "Enemy at the Gates" turns that daunting, massive canvas into a compelling and intimate saga of human will. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud has created a highly personal film that uses the impetus and immediacy of battle to discern universal truths about the true nature of man. In some ways, "Enemy at the Gates" is much more of an achievement than Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." While Spielberg's epic took us into the visceral reality of war, Annaud offers us a "thinking man's" conflict where brains and yes, heart, count.

The film begins in a manner similar to "Saving Private Ryan," throwing us headfirst into the slaughterhouse that was the battle for Stalingrad. Fought in 1942 and '43, that battle marked a turning point in the European Theater, where Hitler's seemingly invincible Aryan soldiers came up against a city that refused to surrender.

The cost of that resistance is unbelievably horrific. Conscripted Russian soldiers get thrown into battle knowing that if the German firepower doesn't kill them, Soviet security forces will if they even appear to be retreating.

And just when all seems lost, political officer Danilov (Fiennes) bears witness to a remarkable feat. A country boy from the Urals named Vassili (Law) wipes out a group of German soldiers in a single confrontation. Realizing the propaganda value of Vassili's prowess, Danilov seeks approval to turn this hick into a hero. Getting the OK from Stalingrad's chief defender, Nikita Krushchev (Bob Hoskins), Danilov starts cranking out pamphlet after pamphlet highlighting Vassili's virtues, his dedication to the cause and his uncanny prowess as a sharpshooter. Vassili's fame soon spreads into the enemy's camp where the Nazi war machine decides to call upon its own top sniper. Enter Maj. Konig (Ed Harris in another steely-eyed, calculating portrayal), an aristocrat-turned-soldier whose mission is to put an end to Vassili's reign. As noble and peasant stalk each other, clever political officer Danilov mines their deadly game of cat-and-mouse, turning it into a classic class struggle.

If only Annaud and the co-screenwriter Alain Godard had left well enough alone and allowed the epic struggle between Konig and Vassili to play out as high drama. Instead, the two screenwriters use this historical tale as a springboard to reflect on a variety of sociopolitical issues, not the least of which are the value of propaganda and the dualities in both the Soviet and Nazi systems. In truth, this story speaks eloquently on its own, and these all-too-frequent sidebars serve only to undermine the story instead of underscore it. There's absolutely no need for Annaud and Godard to take aim at so many political and philosophical targets.

However, the fine cast makes most of these missteps forgivable. Law shows he's more than a pretty face, offering a nicely honed portrait of an ordinary man with extraordinary talents. We watch as he struggles to keep from letting the myth swallow up the man. On the opposite side, Harris gives us a Konig who's a weary war horse, trotted out one more time to prove his mettle. As Danilov, Fiennes creates a believable character, a man who begins to believe his own propaganda, only to realize too late that he's been merely a pawn. And Rachel Weisz, who was terrific in "Sunshine," adds to her onscreen credibility, rising above the limitations of her "love interest" role to make us believe she's a young Jewish woman risking everything.

The film is ostensibly based on William Craig's 1973 novel of the same name, but debate also continues over whether the fleshed-out character of Danilov (Fiennes) might not have come from local author David Robbins' 1999 bestseller "War of the Rats." Robbins' lawyers have been in contact with Paramount, who's releasing the picture. As for Annaud, the director, maintains he and co-screenwriter Alain Godard have never seen or heard of Robbins' book.

Regardless of its questioned pedigree, "Enemy at the Gates" remains an impressive achievement. Unfortunately, it could have been so much more.

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