Enemy at the Gates is that rarest of things — an intelligent epic. This isn’t to say that Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film concerning the battle of Stalingrad in World War II is a masterpiece, but it is at once thoughtful, involving and sweeping, which is an unusual combination. Not so surprisingly — even at this point in time — the film seems to be coming under a degree of attack for its subject matter, since it addresses the issue of a time when Soviet Russia was an ally of the United States, thereby “glorifying” Stalin and the USSR. Fortunately for Annaud and company, Senator McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee aren’t around to take up this reactionary attitude being espoused in some circles. The most disturbing aspect of this backlash — apart from the simple fact that it’s difficult and dangerous to deny that historically we were allies with the Russians — lies in the fact that Enemy at the Gates is about as far removed from being a valentine to Soviet Russia as is possible. It is a film about personal courage and the courage of a people, yes, but the film is at pains to present an unvarnished picture of the country’s leaders as anything but admirable. The movie’s detractors seem to have overlooked this, just as they have overlooked Annaud’s upfront statement that Enemy at the Gates is not intended as a history lesson. “We have taken a historical event and tried to understand what happened in the hearts of the people who lived through it. We know about some of these characters from the archives and newsreel footage, the rest is open to interpretation. This is what makes the story so fascinating and appealing,” Annaud has said. So what Enemy at the Gates is, in the final analysis, is Annaud’s interpretation of what happened, what might have happened, and why it happened. It is a very personal look at an historical event, which in itself is a fresh approach to the idea of an epic, though one grounded in nothing less than Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. The story concerns the elevation of a young Russian sniper, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), to the level of national hero thanks to the clever propaganda of his friend, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), who has convinced Nikita Kruschev (Bob Hoskins) that the best way to motivate the people of Stalingrad is to give them hope. This much is history. What is open to interpretation and speculation are the details — how much of what happened actually happened and how much is the result of Danilov’s propaganda machine? Even the truth of the film’s central conflict between Vassili and the Nazi sniper, Major Konig (Ed Harris in a chilling portrayal), sent by Hitler to kill him is open to question as to where history leaves off and legend begins. Annaud chooses to accept most of the legend as reality, but downplays the hero status by having Vassili himself constantly question it and think of himself as a just a regular soldier reinvented by Danilov. Whether or not the subplot concerning both Vassili and Danilov falling in love with the same soldier, Tania (Rachel Weisz), is historically accurate, it provides not only the human core of the film, but illustrates something of the danger of propaganda even to the propagandist, since Danilov is being bested in love by his own creation. Of course, no question of historical accuracy versus the filmmaker’s intent matters very much unless the results are compelling drama, and Enemy at the Gates is very much that. Annaud wisely never sacrifices the drama and humanity of the film to its undeniable spectacle. The war rages around the characters, but the characters are always what is in focus. As Annaud has commented, “I was very drawn to the idea of going from extreme close-up to the extreme wide angle, of swapping the microscope for the telescope, of making an intimate film at the heart of a battle of epic proportions.” And that is precisely what he has done with the aid of truly terrifying state-of-the-art effects, stunning widescreen cinematography by Robert Fraisse, a brilliant and appealing cast, and composer James Horner — who manages to create a score that is at once wholly his own, yet successfully evokes the sound of the great Russian composer Prokofiev.