It is 1942 and Stalingrad is “a city on the Volga where the fate of the world is being decided.” Hitler is trying to do what Napoleon could not and has sent his troops to invade the Soviet Union.
The Germans have enormous strength, and the Russians are overmatched. Soviet officers hand guns to every other soldier, telling them, “When the one with the rifle gets killed, the one following picks up the rifle and shoots.” The Germans establish a stronghold and the Russian soldiers are badly shaken. A new commanding officer, Nikita Krushchev (Bob Hoskins), terrorizes one of the senior officers into killing himself and asks for suggestions on how to build the morale of his soldiers. A young political officer named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes of “Shakespeare in Love”) makes a suggestion — “give them hope.” He has seen a soldier kill five Germans, each with a single shot. He urges Krushchev to “give them heroes.”
The soldier is Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law), an uneducated boy from the Urals with an extraordinary talent for hitting his target. Danilov’s propaganda makes Zaitsev a legend. And that makes him a target for the Germans, who dispatch their own legendary sniper, Terminator-style, to go after him. When that legend arrives (Ed Harris as Major Koenig), he can research Zaitsev by reading Danilov’s circulars about Zaitsev. Danilov sees Koenig’s arrival as a chance for bigger and better propaganda. Koenig is a nobleman, so that now there is a class war to add to the story.
But everything Danilov does to make Zaitsev a hero and an asset to the Soviets makes him more vulnerable to discovery and attack by the Germans. Things get even more complicaged when Danilov and Zaitsev fall for the same girl, a tough soldier named Tania (Rachel Weisz of “The Mummy”).
This is a thinking person’s historical epic, so impressively ambitious in taking on issues and ideas that you have to cut it some slack when it does not manage them all as skillfully as it hopes to. The story of the German siege of Leningrad is worth a movie in itself. The cat and mouse game between Koenig and Zaitsev is like something out of a classic western, more much about strategy, courage, ingenuity, and patience as about sharpshooting. The issue of using one individual’s story to manipulate the masses plays out fascinatingly throughout the movie. It is reminiscent of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence’s” famous line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” If the love triangle is the weakest part of the movie, that is only because the rest of it is so strong.
All four stars are excellent, especially Law’s guileless integrity and Harris’ variation — a sort of guile-full integrity. When the two men face off against each other, it is clear that they understand each other in a way that no one else ever can.
Parents should know that this is a very tense and violent movie, with graphic battle scenes and piles of dead bodies. Characters are in constant peril and many are killed, including a child. There is a brief but fairly explicit sexual encounter with brief nudity. The characters use strong language, drink, and smoke.
Families who see this movie should talk about the effect that fame has on people. At first, Zaitsev innocently enjoys the attention, though he never lets it go to his head. Later he says, “I can’t carry that weight any more. I want to fight as a regular soldier.” Was what Danilov did necessary? Was it fair to Zaitsev? Did it do what it was intended to? How was that similar to what the Germans did to Koenig? (Think about the scene where he turns in his dogtags)? Why did Tania chose the one she loves? Think about what it says about the real Zaitsev at the end of the movie — does the movie do to the real Zaitsev what Danilov did to the fictional one?
Families who enjoy this movie should read more about the invasion of the Soviet Union, a key turning point in WWII. Younger members of the family might like to hear what happened to the commanding officer, Nikita Krushchev, whom baby boomers may remember best for banging the table with his shoe at the U.N. Families who enjoy this movie should also see “Doctor Zhivago.”