Enemy at the Gates is to Saving Private Ryan as Battlestar Galactica was to Star Wars.

Enemy at the Gates does several big-budget things well. It terrifies us with its depiction of a Stuka attack on troop carriers. It renders the grim vistas of the destruction of Stalingrad so spookily you’d feel sad just looking at the matte paintings. At every opportunity (that is, between the implausible human interactions of the leads) it hammers home the sheer scale of the conflict. Most importantly, the actual sniper combat, is tense and exciting (if not historically accurate).

The small-budget things—the acting and writing—are, unfortunately awry. Ed Harris shames the largely British cast (Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Joseph Fiennes, Bob Hoskins). The young Brits deliver their Estuarine whining with the stiff, overblown earnestness of thesps performing Uncle Vanya on stage at the Almeida; meanwhile Harris somehow makes himself the small, cold, unhysterical centre of the piece: ironic, subtle, wearily intelligent.

The script is broken, the editing lazy, the plotting crude, save for one brilliant and shocking twist, bought at the cost of grafting a love story onto a fascinating true tale. Watching something like this makes you realize why Spielberg is so admired and so despised. He would have resisted the twist and made the ending that much neater and happier, but would have blessed everything else with his talent for pleasing audiences, constructing myths and his simple technical genius for making movies. (And he wouldn’t have made such an embarrassing mess of the bolted-on Jewish family stuff.)