Guns and Lovers … Australians on the Moon?

Guns and Lovers

As movies about World War II find their way into the reference books, you couldn’t say the Battle for Stalingrad has exactly been over-reported. Germany never stops paying for its atrocities in the courts of international justice, but the civilized world has changed its alliances with Russia so many times that most people (especially filmmakers) no longer know what they think about the place. But while a biopic about Joe Stalin is still unlikely, the Battle for Stalingrad in the ferocious winter of 1943, when his brave comrades fought one of the most punishing battles waged against the Nazis in military history, is too massive an epic to ignore. Enemy at the Gates , directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, pretends to be about the heroic resistance of the Russian people that marked the turning point in World War II that led to the German surrender, but it’s really about an intimate conflict between two men set against a massive canvas of epic battle. It’s as dull and clumsy as a Russian tank.

At a time when Hitler’s army is at the height of its marauding power, Russia is invaded by maniacs, and almost everyone in it is starving and dying for Communism, a Soviet shepherd named Vassili (Jude Law) becomes a celebrated sniper who kills off so many Nazis that the Third Reich dispatches its own sharpshooter from Berlin, a distinguished nobleman named Major Konig (Ed Harris), to track him down. Stirring the fudge until it boils, there is also a Soviet political officer named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) who plucks Vassili from the trenches, turns him into a national folk hero through newspaper and radio propaganda, then jealously pouts and smolders in the shadows when they both fall in love with the same beautiful Russian soldier (Rachel Weisz).

The story, we are told, is based on historical facts (Vassili’s rifle is today on view at the Memorial-Historical Museum in Volgograd), but the script, by Mr. Annaud and Alain Godard, reeks of poetic license in full Hollywood pedal-to-the-metal mode. With the duel between the aging German aristocrat and the simple young peasant from the Ural Mountains as the contrasting centerpiece, the movie veers so often into its own spin that you don’t know how much of Vassili’s story is myth and how much is true. With all of Stalingrad reduced to splinters and rubble and so many courageous citizens crawling through pipes to survive, the sex scene between Mr. Law and Ms. Weisz–in which they reach orgasm at the precise moment the walls around them collapse under Nazi bombs–certainly plows cornier ground than a tractor in Iowa. Further laughs are unintentionally scored when Bob Hoskins turns up as a particularly canine Nikita Khrushchev, loutishly barking, “Vodka is a luxury we have. Caviar is a luxury we have. Time is not!”

For all of its epic scale, there are only two battle sequences of any size, at the beginning and end. They deliberately aim for some of the same shock and confusion of war as Saving Private Ryan , but somehow seem stagier and less terrifying. Mr. Annaud is no Spielberg, and at no time do you feel like you are on the front lines facing German machine guns yourself. The film achieves more of a dramatic impact when it concentrates on the class struggle at the root of the cat-and-mouse game. Jude Law is vigorous and dedicated, obviously pleased to be smeared with mud and blood for a change, and Joseph Fiennes is a long way from Elizabethan plumage. But it is really Ed Harris in his cool, conniving and unflinching elegance who keeps the attention focused.

Exuding an air of superiority whether he is puffing on a gold-tipped cigarette or neatly placing an empty porcelain saucer on top of his demitasse, Mr. Harris exemplifies diabolical noblesse oblige at all times. (It’s probably no accident that he’s the only character in the film who always seems to have access to a bar of soap.) One of the best and eeriest small touches in the film is the fatherly affection he shows for an innocent Russian boy he lures into his confidence with chocolate. He’s so soft and caring that he actually seems to regret it later when he hangs his little friend from a factory pipe in the town square. Villains are always the most interesting people, but in his understated performance, Mr. Harris suggests the only reason he’s a villain is that he’s on the wrong side. (By the time the Russians reached Berlin, they made the Germans look like peasants frolicking at a strawberry rash festival.)

There are moments in Enemy at the Gates when broader issues surface. But most of it is stolid, unexciting and ponderous.

Australians on the Moon?

If you thought all the Apollo mission stories were covered by Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, here’s one they missed. The Dish is a charming, entertaining look at Australia’s overlooked contribution to the 1969 Apollo 11 moonwalk that is sweet and funny, with a welcome respect for the traditional filmmaking values that seem to be forgotten in current movies. It tells a true story neatly and succinctly, cataloguing historical facts that changed the world while allowing plenty of room for a fine cast of Australian and American actors to develop and grow, building character and giving the audience a chance to laugh and learn and maybe shed a tear or two in the process. And it accomplishes all of this on a low budget in a mere 104 minutes. No wonder The Dish has become one of the highest-grossing hits in the history of Australian cinema. It’s gratifying stuff, mates, even from a Yank’s perspective.

An estimated 600 million people throughout the world were glued to their TV sets on July 20, 1969, to watch the first man walk on the moon, but how many realize that nobody would have witnessed the miracle of man’s first lunar-surface expedition without the dedicated efforts of a small group of eccentrics in a remote country village called Parkes, Australia, who projected the “live” footage from a satellite dish in the middle of a sheep paddock? The Dish is their story. Directed by Rob Sitch, it’s a noble film about the responsibilities and duties of the crew that manned the dish, and the effect its presence had on the proud and suspicious local community.

Sam Neill plays the calm and respected director of operations, whose authority is often usurped by the NASA representative from Houston (the excellent Patrick Warburton, best known to TV viewers as a regular on Seinfeld ) and thwarted by the personal problems of his two technical engineers (Kevin Harrington and Tom Long). Meanwhile, the townsfolk provide colorful intrusions of their own (“How’s it goin’, Poo?” “Busy as a bee, whole town’s abuzz”) as the mayor and his wife hustle for international attention, the press scrambles to interview everything that moves (including the sheep), the mayor’s politically misguided and rebellious daughter suspects the entire project is being financed by the C.I.A., the recently widowed boss (Mr. Neill) grieves about the death of his wife, and the awkward young technology whiz (Mr. Long) who is shy about everything but his physics equations has girlfriend problems.

For tension, there’s the little-known fact that the dish itself, the prime radio-telescope receiving station for the southern hemisphere, loses power at the 11th hour, the computer crashes and contact is lost with the spaceship. While they stall for time to reprogram the computer data in time for Neil Armstrong to take his first steps on the lunar surface, the U.S. ambassador (veteran John McMartin) arrives unexpectedly for an unscheduled tour and there’s a last-minute windstorm that threatens to wreck the entire project and alter history. Before The Dish ends, the American leader from NASA and the Australian crew must learn to resolve their differences, outsmart the storm, restore the signal in time to save the day and narrowly avoid disaster. While you root for their success and glory, you get to know the characters, experience the behind-the-scenes anxiety and suspense, hear the actual voices of the astronauts in every phase of the landing, and share in the triumphs and near-fiascoes of a historic event.

Nothing revolutionary here, but it’s nice to see a well-made film for a change about something that really matters. I almost forgot what they look like.