Posted on Thursday, December 25th, 2008 by David Chen
As I sat down to write my review of Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, I was struck by how many questions this film is expected to answer upon its release. Can Singer still deliver a big-budget success, after the lackluster performance of Superman Returns? Can Tom Cruise bounce back from his self-inflicted public image problems? Can an exciting and suspenseful film be made about a story that virtually everybody knows the ending to? Read on, curious inquirers…
Valkyrie tells the story of the July 20 (1944) plot by the German Resistance to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise), the resistance conceives of Operation Valkyrie, which, after the assassination of Hitler, would incapacitate the German government and set up a new shadow government in its place. Cruise is joined in his mission by fellow dissenters such as Major General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), General Ludwig Beck (Terrence Stamp) and General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard).
Only viewers with virtually no familiarity with world history will fail to realize from the outset that Operation Valkyrie was a failure. Thus, Singer’s biggest challenge was to make the movie thrilling, despite the audience’s foreknowledge. In this regard, I can say confidently that he succeeds. I saw Valkyrie in a packed theater and there is a certain magic that when you are watching a movie with an audience that is completely engrossed with the onscreen proceedings. As the details of Operation Valkyrie slowly unraveled, I could feel the gears turning as everyone began to grasp the mechanics and implications of the plot. And when the ultimate moment finally arrived, I felt the audience collectively held their breath, wondering whether or not the assassination plan would actually work. It was a unique and exciting experience, and I came away with a great respect for what Singer accomplished here.
But like many historical films, this one coasts completely on the strength of its story and plot. The characters here are virtual ciphers; we’re really given no information about anyone’s motivation and the movie just assumes that you’ll put the pieces together yourself (not that you can’t). The only person you’re given any backstory for is Col. Stauffenberg, and that’s only from a few lines of voiceover at the beginning of the film.
In any other movie, the lack of character development would be a strong mark against it but what prevents that from happening in Valkyrie is the uniform excellence of its cast. Some of the performances on display here are truly marvelous. While Nighy, Wilkinson, and Stamp turn in characteristically fine turns, I really want to direct attention to two actors that most American audiences probably don’t know too much about: Christian Berkel (who plays Col. Quirnheim) and Thomas Kretschmann (who plays Major Remer). Interestingly, both of them played Nazis in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s German film, Downfall, as well, but their brief turns here prove them worthy in English-speaking roles too. Quirnheim’s single-mindedness in accomplishing the mission makes him one of the more sympathetic supporting characters in the film, and Major Remer manages to provide some of the film’s rare humorous moments (plus his physical shiver when he hears that voice is one of my favorite movie moments of 2008).
But what of Tom Cruise, whose eye-patched depiction of Stauffenberg has helped to create the immutable and negative buzz surrounding Valkyrie? In general, I suppose I am a Cruise apologist. I think if you try and ignore his couch-jumping antics, you’ll find a man who still tries his damndest for every single movie he appears in. He might not always succeed, but he always manages to show at least a hint of why he got to where he is in the first place.
Cruise’s performance in Valkyrie is thoroughly competent, and not nearly as bad as some of the trailers might lead you to believe. His use of an American accent can occasionally be jarring, and the infamous “Heil Hitler!” scene did strike me as mildly silly. But all the other elements of Stauffenberg’s character are rendered skillfully. He’s a loving father, an injured veteran, and a citizen determined to restore honor back to Germany. Make no mistake: the biggest challenge for for this film is the audience’s willingness to separate Cruise’s public persona from his onscreen portrayal of Stauffenberg. If you can do this, you’ll find that while Cruise doesn’t deliver an Oscar-worthy performance, he doesn’t come close to sinking the movie as some would have you believe.
Overall, in order to enjoy Valkyrie, there is a lot that you, the viewer, needs to be willing to do. You have to accept that the movie, despite being set in Nazi Germany, forces all of the actors to sport English or American accents. You need to be willing to ignore all the poisonous hype and give Tom Cruise another chance in a dramatic role. And for a couple of hours, you need to believe that a few determined men in Nazi Germany had the potential to end one of the most infamous political regimes in human history. Do all of these things, and you’ll find a movie that serves as a fine testament to the determination of the German resistance and a fascinating look at how close they really came.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
David Chen can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.