By all accounts, the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad was among the worst charnel pits in recorded history: six months of chaos in which the Soviet army, at unimaginable cost, repelled Hitler’s troops and helped turn the tide of WWII. How do you wedge such an event into two hours? Enemy at the Gates relies on the comforts of genre, and extracts a perfectly okay drama out of something unknowably larger.
After an opening that apes ”Saving Private Ryan”’s epic tableaux of death, Gates turns to the old romantic-triangle plotline by focusing on a real-life hero, Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), and his relationship with a propaganda officer (Joseph Fiennes) and the woman (Rachel Weisz) they both love. In the end, the film comes down to a classic high-noon confrontation between Zaitsev and his Nazi opposite number (Ed Harris); all that’s missing is Tex Ritter singing ”Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling.”
Perhaps that’s unfair. There are things to admire here, from the haunted performances by Law and Fiennes to the shredded historical grace notes of the larger canvas. And perhaps ”Gates” leans on cliche as a bulwark of sanity, making what happened in Stalingrad bearable even as it lessens it.