In Norse mythology, a valkyrie (Old Norse valkyrja “chooser of the slain”) is one of a host of female figures that chooses who will win or die in battle.
When it comes to movies, documentaries, or even books regarding World War II, Germans are typically viewed as the most evil of enemies. Taking all of this must have made one feel like all Germans were enemies, and that they were proud to be. But upon closer observation, this is not the case as we were shown in “Valkyrie.” Indeed, there were many Germans who detested Hitler for the endless trail of death he left in his path, and of how he effectively alienated the rest of the world from Germany. Hitler wanted to take over the world, and his plan was of course doomed to failure as history showed us. The thing is though, his reign of power could have ended a lot sooner had certain conspirators actually accomplished their mission the way the Romans took care of Julius Caesar. They may have not succeeded, but their effort was full of bravery as much as it was deception.
Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie” is based on a true story (as is every other movie made today) of how several German officers organized a plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler. There was a strong yet secretive minority of officers who saw Hitler as destroying Germany as they once knew it. Once they accomplished the task of assassinating Hitler, they would put Operation Valkyrie in effect. Operation Valkyrie was an operational plan that was actually approved by Hitler himself, and he intended it to be used in the event that a disruption caused by the Allied bombing of German cities resulted in a breakdown in law and order, or a rising by the millions of forced laborers from occupied countries working in German factories. Ironically, the German Resistance managed to modify the plan to use it to take control of German cities, disarm the SS, and arrest the Nazi leadership once Hitler had been assassinated. From there, the Resistance could take control of the government, make peace with the Allies, and end a war that they feel has shamed them and their country of Germany.
This premise can be seen as problematic from the get go because we all come in to this knowing that the plan had failed, and that Hitler later took his own life. But along with the recent “Frost/Nixon,” Bryan Singer still manages to generate a strong amount of tension as we follow these men through a plan that will effectively end their careers and their lives if they are ever found out. “Valkyrie” had been riding a wave of largely negative buzz as the opening date of the movie kept getting shifted back and forth to where it started to look like some insane tennis match. It turns out that the backlash going towards this movie was largely unjustified, and was probably the result of the fact that it is just not popular to like Tom Cruise these days. While it is not a great movie, “Valkyrie” does prove to be an exciting movie that takes you along this treacherous mission to the point where you almost want it to succeed.
The key role of this assassination attempt was put forth by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and he is played by Tom Cruise minus an authentic German accent. While Tom Cruise is not bad in the movie, it almost would have made it more effective if another actor were cast in this role instead. The problem is, Cruise brings so much baggage to this role being the celebrity as it is, and the public in general seems to think of him as a little loony. It makes me feel a little sorry for Tim because this is not entirely his fault at all. It’s not like he planned to bring all this baggage with him. There is nothing laughable about his performance here, except for one moment where he is forced to do the “Heil Hitler” salute. Something about that moment just didn’t come out right. But Cruise does bring a good sense of gravity to the film, and he actually doesn’t look too bad with an eye patch.
The problem with an actor (or a star) like Tom Cruise is that he is not really able to disappear into a character (unless you count “Tropic Thunder”) the way some of his co-stars here can. However which way you put it, he is always going to be that Tom Cruise we have known for many years. Of course, we can see that it is not his intention to force this persona on to the character he is playing, and he plays straight throughout the whole movie. Cruise manages to hold his own in the movie along with the fine cast that Singer was lucky to get for this film. At the very least, I am so glad that he was not “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes” as Dougray Scott described him in “Mission Impossible II.”
Singer ends up kind of under directing the movie in that he does not throw explosions and chases at us every other minute. The movie effectively builds its suspense by looking how fragile this assassination plan was, and how easily it could go wrong. Plus, how could they trust everyone around them? In today’s world, Hitler would essentially be big brother and be able to spy on all the things said about him. But while this movies takes place a long time ago before technology became what it is today, there is still a palpable sense of unease as the Resistance members discuss certain things out loud to where you wonder if any German soldiers are over hearing what they say. How long can you keep a secret? How can you be fully sure that your eyes will not deceive you and illuminate the secrets for those who suspect you?
Singer gets many big moments of suspense going as when one of the characters attempts to retrieve a bomb that was meant to go off in a plane with Hitler on board. There is an air of anxiety in the air as the conspirator tries to get the bomb before it goes off accidentally. Plus, the conspirators don’t always seem to be on the same page with each other, and this threatens both their treasonous plan as well as their survival. Bryan Singer does a very effective job of putting us in the shoes of all these people, and in getting us to feel what they feel as they get closer to going through with their ultimate goal of getting rid of Hitler.
Bryan Singer also works again with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, the same man who an Oscar who won an Oscar for Singer’s breakthrough movie, “The Usual Suspects.” Chris does really good work at differentiating the conspirators from each other, and he gets the psychology of each one to where you fear one will quickly crash under the pressure. Singer also employs his longtime collaborator, editor and film composer John Ottman. Ottman’s score does an effective job of highlighting the escalating tension that is just underneath the surface. After working on several films with Singer, he remains one of the more underrated film composers working today.
I was never really aware of any plan from the Germans to take Hitler off the face of the earth, and I had always assumed that the Germans would be too scared for their own lives to pull off something like that. Bringing light to this story does a service for the people of Germany as this is a stain they all have had to live with whether they want to or not. It is a reminder of how not all countries support their leaders, and that most people do have the best interests of the country on their mind carrying out tasks like this. Granted, assassination is not always the best of plans as it more often than not turns the intended victim into a martyr, hence making that person more powerful in death than in life. But with Hitler, the circumstances were very dire as his actions affected the world as a whole, and not just the country he resided in.
Even though the conclusion of this story is clear, I still wanted Stauffenberg and his band of followers to succeed in their mission. As the movie got closer and closer to its ultimate climax, you can feel their victory as it is almost in their grasp. 2008 has proven to be a good year in regards to movies like this or “Frost/Nixon” which deal with events we feel we know inside and out, and yet it is still a riveting experience to watch those events dramatized the way they were. “Frost/Nixon” is the best example of this, but “Valkyrie” works well in its own way.
In addition to Tom Cruise, the cast of “Valkyrie” is made up of well known British actors who managed to fit this movie into their schedule when they weren’t caught up in making a “Harry Potter” movie. Kenneth Branagh, great in just about everything he does, is a welcome presence here as Major-General Henning von Tresckow. Terence Stamp is a strong presence in any movie he is in, and he plays Ludwig Beck, the man who stands to lose the most of all the conspirators if the plan fails. Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”) also stars in the movie as General Friedrich Fromm, the man whose participation in this conspiracy is almost certainly needed in order for it to go through at all.
In terms of actors who do in fact disappear into their roles, there is Bill Nighy who plays General Friedrich Olbricht. Having gotten so used to seeing Bill with a lot of hair, it took me forever to recognize him in this movie. I saw him and thought that I knew him from somewhere but couldn’t quite place him right away. But one who disappears even further into his role is Eddie Izzard, and he plays General Erich Fellgiebel. I didn’t even realize it was him until the end credits came up!
Of all the actors in the movie however, the one is severely underused in this movie is Carice von Houten. She plays Stauffenberg’s wife and mother of his children, and her presence is there to show the life Claus has outside of the military. Or to be more blunt, it shows how his wife affects and complements his character. Carice was so great in last year’s “Black Book,” that it is such a shame to see her wasted in a largely underwritten part. She isn’t bad, but she is only in the movie to benefit Cruise’s character and nothing more. It may have been better to write the wife out of the movie completely. I look forward to seeing Carice in more movies in the future, albeit ones that make a better use of her talent.
“Valkyrie” is basically an above average action movie that is very well made, but by no means is it spectacular. Still, it is nice to see a movie like this rise above the negative crap that it has had to endure all the way to its release. Whether or not you like it may very well depend on how you feel about Tom Cruise as an actor, and of his presence in this movie. For me, his presence was not an irritation, and even though another actor might have been better, he still does good work here. Still, there is that baggage that comes with being a world famous celebrity, but how can he help that?
“Valkyrie” kept me on the edge of my seat throughout its running time, and that is a claim that not many movies this year have made. It is definitely worth a look.
*** out of ****
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