Monday, January 05, 2009


Let's skip right to the review, eh?


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2009 at Regal Fenway 13 #10 (First-run)

Valkyrie is a thriller where the result is never in doubt except for the details - and even with those, it's made clear that there won't be much room for escape or leniency should the plot fail. This means the film has to work harder, not just in terms of building the tension, but giving us other things to think about.

We meet Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) in 1943, when he is stationed in the African desert. As a professional soldier, he hates seeing his soldiers' lives thrown away on what he sees as inevitable defeat and the atrocities being committed in the name of his country - and that's before a bomber attack maims him, leaving him short an eye, a hand, and two fingers on the one that remains. On the Eastern Front, General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) attempts to kill a visiting Hitler (David Bamber) with a bomb which fails to go off. Sensing a kindred spirit, von Tresckow recruits von Stauffenberg into a conspiracy to bring the Nazis down, led by Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin McNally), and General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy). Col. von Stauffenberg soon conceives of an audacious plan to assassinate Hitler and then use the Nazis' own contingency plan - Operation Valkyrie - to seize power by framing the SS. There are complications, though - not the least of which is that only the commander of the Home Guard, Gen. Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) can initiate Valkyrie, and he won't officially join the plot.

Though there are a lot of people involved and as many events, director Bryan Singer and writers Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander make the operation fairly easy to follow. The specifics of the military action is glossed over apart from what is necessary to give the audience a sense of scale, but we are given enough details to spot how the mechanism works: What must happen simultaneously, what must happen in sequence, and which of them are potential points of failure. And unlike many films built around a caper, Valkyrie doesn't pull the trick of saying that important events were withheld from the audience and the assumptions that they have been operating under for the past twenty minutes or so are false.

Unless, of course, you count the one that we all know from history class, but that's the point - we know it, but they don't, and that's what makes the last act so engrossing. The first half of the movie was somewhat thin, emotionally - we see soldiers torn between obeying their oaths and their consciences, but it's hard to feel much ambiguity ourselves because they're talking about killing Adolf Hitler. When the plan kicks off, on the other hand, we see that they've overreached, and exactly how things went wrong. As the characters become confident and emboldened, we become a little more skeptical. We see hubris where we once saw virtue.

That's when it becomes clear how well Tom Cruise is suited for the role, too. Col. von Stauffenberg is revealed as the sort of hot shot that Cruise built his career on. He'd been that way from the start, of course, but it's finally let loose there. It's the sort of thing Cruise is really good at playing, and he gives the rest of the movie a ton of momentum. There are even moments where we perhaps believe he'll pull it off, especially when his energy is compared to how physically unimpressive David Bamber makes Hitler - the one almost has to win out over the other, right?

Cruise isn't alone in stepping up; Bill Nighy tosses aside his doughy, dithering persona to become a fierce presence, while Tom Wilkinson grabs nearly every scene he's in. There's an exhilarating clash of idealism and pragmatism throughout, and that's before getting to the rest of the ridiculously good cast - Eddie Izzard, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, and Jamie Parker just to start. The cast is good enough that one doesn't even miss Kenneth Branagh that much after his relatively early exit.

Singer opts not to have his anglophone cast affect German accents, and it's a direction that I wish more films would take. These characters, after all, are speaking their native language, so their words shouldn't sound unusual or "foreign". There are some other missteps - von stauffenberg seems to recruit people rather recklessly, for instance - but overall, Singer and company have done an impressive job making a quality thriller out of a story where we all know how it's going to end.

Also at HBS, along with two other reviews.


Anonymous said...

you are right

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review.
I want to like this moveie when I catch it but I just can't see it being done in the rather darker sincere way that I would imagine it best with Tom Cruise heading things off. Especially after what you've said about his hot shot'ness ringing through. I don't think that's what this type of movie needs.
Oh well. There was at least one good war movie this year which was The Counterfeiters.