There was a time, in the not so distant past, when anything Tom Cruise starred in was a bonafide hit. His recent bizarre social etiquette seems to have changed that as 2007’s Lions for Lambs attests to. Deciding to follow that up with the obscure German war thriller Valkyrie surely isn’t the way to go about rectifying the situation.
It is plagued with problems that go deeper than the fact that no one speaks German or has a German accent. You want a historical film to be as real as possible — so surely a film whose primary characters are insiders and confidantes to Hitler would speak the Fà¼hrer’s language, wouldn’t they?
But let’s just pretend that doesn’t affect the film in such a profound way. The biggest letdown is the lack of punch delivered by Valkyrie. Even those that don’t know history very well, should be versed enough to know how Hitler died and therefore know how the movie is going to end. With that in mind, for the film to be effective it needed plenty of suspense, mystery and drama and sadly, there just isn’t nearly enough to overcome. The first half of the movie is spent introducing us to a bevy of characters that I couldn’t remember if I tried (and I did try) and in trying to develop their complex relationships to one another. A great deal of it is lost in translation and ultimately not needed to tell the story.
What was of interest during this hour+ span was the ingenious concept put forth by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) to seize power. For the coop attempt to be successful, von Stauffenberg had to kill Hitler to use Hitler’s own power safeguards against the Reich. On his death, “Operation Valkyrie” would commence, during which the German Reserve Army units would spring into action, secure government locations and arrest all the SS (they’re the patsies being blamed for killing Hitler). The void would leave von Stauffenberg and his coconspirators free to seize the political reigns. This could have been laid out in 20 minutes.
When the operation finally gets going though, the going does get good. Director Bryan Singer pulls out all the tricks in his arsenal, developing a heightened level of desperation and confusion between the conspirators as they try to pull off what may have been the most complex assassination attempt ever undertaken. He gets the biggest bang for his buck from the work of some very powerful cast members. Tom Cruise, who is arguably one of the best actors working today, brings a solemn intensity to von Stauffenberg — unwaveringly driving the scheme from beginning to end. Bill Nighy is convincing as the unsure and nervous General Friedrich Olbricht, the man responsible for giving the order to start Reserve Army deployments if General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) doesn’t. Terence Stamp dons the aristocrat hat as retired General Ludwig Beck — proving once again that politicking has no place around time sensitive decision making.
From readings and interviews, special care was taken to ensure the accounts depicted in Valkyrie were as authentic as possible. Of this I have no doubt. More care, however, should have been applied to making the film more than just a historical exercise. Of this I also have no doubt.