Not everyone in Nazi Germany was an evil, Hitler loving fanatic. Many were disgusted by the Hitler atrocities. Some put aside those feelings for personal gain, while others activity fought back. This is a message that is being told right now, in some shape or form, in at least five movies this fall. Good has Viggo Mortenson selling his soul for advancement, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas has friendship between children in a concentration camp, The Reader has a young man sleeping with an ex-Nazi guard, while Defiance actually has Jews fighting back. But the most high-profile “Good German” movie this fall is Valkyrie, thanks to Tom Cruise, of all people.
In 1942, Colonial Claus von Stauffenberg was stationed in North Africa, already sickened by the Nazi regime and aching for a change, in order to save Germany. A subsequent battle resulted in Stauffenberg losing his eye and a few fingers, and only solidified his desire for regime change. At that time, several other high ranking Germans were in the midst of plotting Hitler’s death, and recruited Stauffenberg’s help. Ultimately, Stauffenberg came up with “Operation Valkyrie” in which they would use Hitler’s own contingency plans in case of assassination to take power, and neutralize the chain of command. But before that can take place, Hitler has to die. For that, Stauffenberg and his men needed intricate planning and perfect luck – which fell just short of occurring.
The story of Stauffenberg and Operation Valkyrie was the final assassination attempt on Hitler by his own men, and the one that came closest to success. For that, modern day Germany reveres the Valkyrie story, with Valkyrie introducing the plot to many Americans for the first time. But the details of this plot and the circumstances that led to it took a back seat in the hype of Valkyrie’s release. That was due to the casting of Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg, and, the lack of a German accent by Cruise and his very British co-stars.
Beyond that, Valkyrie the movie may remind audiences more of an Oceans like con movie. There’s the intricate, complicated plans, defying the law, the B movie like thrills in carrying it out, and the use of all-star actors to fill out big and small parts. Taking such an important story and turning it into a regular old action/heist esq film may upset the strict WWII purists in the audience – if Cruise hasn’t done it first.
At heart, Valkyrie tries to perform the difficult task of being a serious movie about resisting evil in one’s own country, and delivering regular old thrills all at once. The last part is the most difficult, since even those who don’t know of the Valkyrie plot must know that Hitler didn’t die from it. But director Bryan Singer is returning to his roots in doing just that. After all, Singer did it with The Usual Suspects before becoming a super hero director for the X-Men and Superman.
Singer should be the ideal director for Valkyrie in two respects – delivering thrills in his Usual Suspects mode, and delivering both thrills and social statements in his X-Men mode. Singer has less success with the latter, as the first half of Valkyrie sets things up with an overly long series of “we’re not like Hitler” statements from Staffenberg and the conspirators. But once things get going, Singer shows flashes of his Usual Suspects self again when Operation Valkyrie is carried out. The most difficult task for a movie like this is to have suspense and thrills, even when audiences know the ending, Singer accomplishes this, aided in no small part by his usual editor and composer, John Ottman.
The story of Valkyrie should inspire thrills and emotion all at once, as these men deserved. But Valkyrie mainly just inspires thrills, leaving aside the emotional core of the story for the large part. That makes Valkyrie a disappointment in one aspect. But as a thriller, and an intricate tale of how this plan was carried out and almost worked, Valkyrie succeeds in that aspect. It also succeeds because it could have been a lot worse.
With Cruise in the lead, his look as a one-eyed Nazi, and his complete lack of being German, Valkyrie was anticipated to be a train wreck by Cruise detractors. But those foes will not find much camp, or much unintentional laughs. Cruise, of course, is probably all wrong for the part, but he doesn’t embarrass himself either. In regards to the accent, Cruise is usually a better actor when he doesn’t talk anyway. Cruise’s typical intensity and commitment is there, but a bit harder to see with just one eye. But the main victory for Cruise just comes in not being as bad as people expected or hoped. Cruise subdues himself to a point where he doesn’t completely overshadow things, for once – but perhaps he is too subdued to make much impact, for good or bad. This is a rarity for Cruise, in both refreshing and disappointing ways.
Beyond Cruise, Valkyrie has a real all-star cast as his co-conspirators. Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terrance Stamp and Eddie Izzard inspire expectations among Valkyrie’s cast in ways that Cruise may not. But in a film like this, they don’t have much room to give it their all. Branagh and Stamp are particularly underused. Fortunately, Nighy and Wilkinson can still do more with less than pretty much anyone – Nighy as often indecisive General Olbricht, and Wilkinson as untrustworthy General Fromm. Izzard and Christian Berkel do well with limited roles in the conspiracy, with David Bamber a suitably creepy Hitler.
Those who want to pounce on Valkyrie for tampering with history, and for Cruise’s involvement, won’t have as much to pick at as they would like. Those who go into Valkyrie wanting to see a tense movie that puts suspense into a true story will be satisfied. Others will have to put aside the accent issue, the Cruise issue, and the issue that the Valkyrie conspirators probably deserved a more well rounded tribute. Ultimately, Valkyrie succeeds best for those who don’t have too high, or too low, expectations.