MV5BYWFlY2E3ODQtZWNiNi00ZGU4LTkzNWEtZTQ2ZTViMWRhYjIzL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTAyODkwOQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_We begin in a boy’s youth, as his grandfather teaches him to shoot wolves. He hesitates, and the wolf disembowels their horse.

We then launch in medias res, as Soviet recruits are ferried across the Volga to fight the Nazis in what you can already say is the ruins of Stalingrad. Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law) is among them. He is the boy of the earlier incident, but he is not one of the lucky few to be given a rifle before being sent into the hell between the German guns and those that ensure he will not retreat. Vassily starts out with a convincing expression of terrified panic on his face, but somehow Mr. Law manages to escalate as the film goes on.

After that first abortive offensive, Vassily is avoiding the Nazi mopping-up by hiding in a fountain full of corpses. There he is joined by the young political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), whose car has just blown up, whose glasses are broken, whose competence with a gun is merely nominal, and who is generally having a really bad case of the Mondays. He fumbles with a rifle he finds until Vassily takes it from him and rapidly kills every Nazi he can see. Danilov, in true Soviet style, makes Vassily into a Hero of the Motherland, with a new fancy sniper rifle, fanmail, and slightly exaggerated rustic bona fides. They become fast friends, but Danilov also sells the heroism to a young(ish) Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins).

Two complications emerge. The first is a beautiful woman, Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz), who can both read German and shoot, and thus bounces back and forth awkwardly between Danilov’s staff and Vassily’s band of miracle-workers. The second is a Nazi sniper, a Major König (Ed Harris), who has come all the way from Berlin to kill Vassily.

It doesn’t seem as though many saw this film, perhaps because in early 2001 it was still fashionable to imagine that we had solved the problem of war. It was particularly unpalatable at the time to consider a war in which neither side was hunky freedom-loving good guys. To be sure, Enemy at the Gates never for a moment questions that the Nazis must be stopped, but it also pulls no punches about the miseries of Soviet life–the wolf has already taken everything you love, the film tells you, but you must continue to fight.

Overlooking this movie, however, was a collective failure in judgement, because it’s rather good. It is affecting without being emotionally manipulative, unlike the vast majority of WWII movies. Everyone, particularly Hoskins and Harris, is well cast; it is difficult to believe that Ed Harris has only played a Nazi officer in one other film, as far as I can tell. You want to like Fiennes, but political officers are necessarily squirrelly. Weisz and Law are impossibly beautiful, and impossibly young, but they are carefully encrusted in dirt, so it isn’t jarring. They joke adorably about how Vassily’s crisp new uniform will probably be taken back directly after a photo-op.

Heads up, though, an entirely plausible number of people die.

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Rating: R
Length: 131 minutes
Score: 4/5