World War II remains the ultimate cinematic backdrop for elements both within and outside the conflict’s control. On the one hand, there are so many fascinating and intricate parts to the global confrontation that Hollywood can easily extract any number of compelling stories. In addition, the battle lines are so clearly drawn between good (the Allies) and evil (the Axis) that the metaphysical clashes tend to match the actual combats themselves. Perhaps this is why the new Tom Cruise/Bryan Singer effort Valkyrie seems to strange. It offers up an initially interesting story that’s ending is obvious, and then tries to paint a group of high minded Nazis in a sympathetic - nay heroic - light. Fact or fiction, it’s a confusing combination that only works halfway.
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg considers himself a good German. He also considers himself a lax Nazi. Hating where the party is going, especially in light of issues both political and person, he wants to help the Fatherland. As a result he is drawn into a plot to kill the current leader, Adolf Hitler, and replace him with an exiled member of the nation’s elite. In order to do so, von Stauffenberg needs a pair of accomplices. General Friedrich Olbricht will help with the bureaucratic ends, and his immediate superior General Friedrich Fromm (himself unhappy about the Reich’s war strategy) is willing to turn a blind military eye. All they need is a plan, and it comes in the form of Project Valkyrie. Under the executive order, should anything happen to the Fuhrer, the army is to step in and maintain order. Von Stauffenberg decides to use this plan as a means of assisting in an all out coup. Now, all they need to do is assassinate Hitler…
Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann
(United Artists; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 23 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
For the first 50 minutes or so, Valkyrie feels like your standard above-average espionage thriller. It takes your typical recruited protagonist, puts him into a group of well meaning but disorganized individuals, figures out a way to get everyone on the same page, and then sets the various conspiracy cogs through their clockwork, suspense-filled paces. We watch in patent disbelief as men within Hitler’s own ranks determine the fate of their Fuhrer, and marvel at how easy their planned assassination will be. Indeed, a great deal of the title strategy (built on a policy that allows an elite corps of troops to arrest and detain the SS) is built on orders, communication, assumptions, and a strict sense of loyalty. Such a scheme could not work today. Technology and an innate suspiciousness would keep the people in power long after any bombshell - true or false - had dropped.
Still, when working with this material, Bryan Singer shows some tension building acumen. As Valkyrie moves from moment to moment, creating scenarios destined to come back to haunt our characters later, we feel ourselves slowly shifting toward the edge of our seat. When Cruise finally makes his way to Hitler’s country bunker, his briefcase loaded with some Third Reich erasing TNT, we are truly taken over with anticipation. We want to see how all this plays out, if Cruise will be captured, how the rest of the plan is executed, and oddly enough, what will bring about the attempted coup’s collapse. Since we know Hitler survives (though the movie tries to trick us into questioning such a conclusion), we sense the next big reveal will be how these well considered and best laid plans unravel.
Unfortunately, the last act of Valkyrie is its very weakest link. It’s like watching Seven Days in May meshed with a great deal of supposed historic happenstance. Without giving much away, the success of the overthrow depends on how the Bureau of Communication handles the incoming flood of material from both Cruise’s and Hitler’s camps. If we are to believe the screenplay, it all came down to a gut check by a couple of middle management flunkies. Had they made a different call, everything we know about Nazi Germany may have been vastly different. In the meantime, we are forced to watch actors of highly distinct caliber play phone tag, each one trying to secure a section of the country for their future leader-in-waiting (a dull Terrance Stamp).
Granted, this seems like the way events resolved themselves. Most political power struggles are not gun battles with bullets blazing by the key players, and Singer has a problem matching the intricacies of the film’s first sections with these events. But Valkyrie knew this originally, and it doesn’t seem phased about going out with a whimper. Cruise even tones down his jackboot machismo, allowing small layers of doubt to cloud his otherwise iron cross resolve. The former A-lister is very good here, avoiding any bad German accenting by employing that by now formulaic slow dissolve from native language to English. He’s also good at playing the center of a rising storm, especially when given the floundering favors of Brit bystanders Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Kenneth Branagh.
But the harshest criticism lands at Singer’s doorstep. He’s like a great athlete who has no finishing move. The Usual Suspects is often remembered for its brain-busting twist, not for how said denouement was directed. Singer still fumbles material that should soar (the opening attack of Cruise and his men in Africa), while handling routine scenes in an amazing, unexpected manner. This is especially true of a meeting between Von Stauffenberg and the enigmatic Hitler where Wagner becomes key. They sequence crackles with a series of ominous implications that are hard to shake. But once everything turns to phone calls and map marking, Valykrie looses its ferocity. Instead, it turns typical and unspectacular. And of course, there’s the whole “good Nazi” underpinning to confuse things further.
If you don’t mind the fluctuation in focus, if the tripwire midsection can get your through the labored last act, Valkyrie will be a solid success. It will hit all the right marks while portraying heroism from a unique and somewhat unusual perspective. Historians may argue over the accuracy, and those demanding as much bang for their buck as possible will be underwhelmed at best. Still, there’s enough interest and intrigue here to carry across a substantive mainstream entertainment. Trying to get Americans to buy the enemy as noble is never an easy proposition, and some may say that focusing on Von Stauffenberg and his exploits is a losing cinematic proposition. But Valkyrie manages to just rise above such criticism. It’s passable, if far from perfect.