A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to 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.
What's the story?
It is 1942, the Germans are invading Stalingrad, and the Russians are overmatched. A tough new commanding officer, Nikita Krushchev (Bob Hoskins) asks for suggestions on how to build the morale of his soldiers. Young political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) makes a suggestion -- "give them heroes." He's seen a soldier kill five Germans, each with a single shot. The soldier is Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law), a poor, uneducated boy, but a sharpshooter. Danilov's propaganda makes Zaitsev a legend. The Germans send their own legendary sniper, Koenig (Ed Harris), to kill him. Danilov sees Koenig's arrival as a chance for bigger and better propaganda. Koenig is a nobleman, adding a class war 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 complicated when Danilov and Zaitsev fall for the same girl, a tough soldier named Tania (Rachel Weisz).
Is it any good?
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 doesn’t 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's clear that they understand each other in a way that no one else ever can.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can 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?
For kids who love sweeping sagas
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