The Crop: Valkyrie
The Studio: United Artists
The Director: Bryan Singer
The Writers: Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander
The Producer: Singer, Mcquarrie and Tom Cruise (As Exec Prod.)
The Actor: Cruise
The Premise: Claus von Stauffenberg, a conscience-stricken German WWII hero, joins a clandestine military resistance operation dedicated to toppling Adolph Hitler by any means necessary. Stauffenberg suggests that they initiate Operation Valkyrie – the activation of army reservists in order to seize power in a time of emergency – as a means of ousting the Nazis. Wanna guess how it turns out?
The Context: Who would you rather be right now: Bryan Singer or Tom Cruise? If you’ve chosen the former, please turn to Page Forty-Seven, where you’ll find yourself awash in ignominy after spending upwards of $300 million to make a Superman movie few people actively liked. If you’ve opted for the latter, please turn to page 226 of Dianetics, where you’ll learn how to shrug off negative public opinion evoked by unfettered hubris, the fakest looking "torrid" love affair since Stallone shtupped Stone in The Specialist and the death of your go-to film franchise.
This is a tough one, no? On one hand, Singer’s courted less resentment (he was mostly golden in the geek community before Superman Returns thanks to the first two X-Men features), while, on the other, Cruise is still one of the world’s biggest movie stars (Mission: Impossible III doubled its disappointing U.S. gross abroad). Cruise is also resilient; though he’s taken a beating in the tabloids for his erratic behavior over the last two years, he still managed to convince Robert Redford to direct and co-star in Lions for Lambs (Meryl Streep will also star), which promises to be a major 2007 awards contender for United Artists. Oh, and Cruise has, with business partner Paula Wagner, essentially set up UA as a fiefdom wherein he can continue his filmmaking career sans interference or bullying from meanies like Sumner Redstone.
Make fun of Cruise all you want, but it’ll take a phalanx of elephant guns (or a lude and a thirteen-year-old) to put this guy down.
Does this mean Singer, who’s been sniffing around The Mayor of Castro Street again, needs Cruise to successfully rebound from Superman Returns? Or does he just want to put off the Harvey Milk biopic for yet another year? Hard to tell, but collaborating with Cruise on Valkyrie has multiple benefits; not only is the film all but guaranteed to make coin in foreign territories, it also gives Singer the opportunity to re-team with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie for the first time since The Usual Suspects. With the future of the Superman franchise in doubt (despite the assurances of Singer or the studio), Valkyrie looks like the surest thing on the horizon.
The Script: No one loved The Last Samurai, but it cracked $100 million domestic, right? Well, Valkyrie‘s just as shamelessly formulaic and much shorter (114 pages), so it’s probably a very safe bet for all involved.
What it’s not is McQuarrie’s best work. But that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most arrogantly assured screenplays I’ve ever read. It’s one thing to address the reader over the course of the script (Shane Black’s a master at this), but quite another to telegraph at every turn your capitulation to Hollywood convention. I don’t know if McQuarrie and co-writer Alexander did this out of conceitedness or embarrassment; regardless, it made me hate this screenplay more than I might have otherwise.
The script is prefaced by the oath of loyalty to Adolph Hitler, which goes a little something like this:
"I swear by God this sacred oath: That I shall render unconditional obedience to Adolph Hitler, the Fuhrer of the German Reich, and that I shall at all times be prepared, as a brave soldier, to give my life for this oath."
Despite having pledged his loyalty to Hitler (albeit only out of love for Germany), we’re meant to view Valkyrie‘s protagonist, Claus von Stauffenberg, as a hero for giving his life in a failed attempt to depose the evilest motherfucker of the twentieth century. Coming to terms with or outright accepting this notion requires more moral calculation than McQuarrie’s script is willing to work out*; the fact that Stauffenberg has been repulsed by Hitler all along and is finally willing to join the resistance after heavily decorated service to the Reich is sufficient justification to cheer him on.
That it takes nearly getting strafed to bits in North Africa by a British fire bomber to force Stauffenberg’s dedication to the resistance should bother audiences plenty. But his heroism in giving helpless soldiers a fighting chance to survive the assault in the wide open desert shows what a mens- er, swell fella he is. Also, the poor guy loses an eye and two fingers for his trouble, but maintains a sense of humor about the whole ordeal! Who cares if he’s done his part to prolong the suffering of an entire continent? The bastard’s sacrificed for the rest of his life the ability to do that trick where you join hands with your friend and make it look like someone’s butthole! What the hell did you do during the war? And don’t give me that "My parents weren’t even born!" bullshit.
Upon leaving the hospital, Stauffenberg returns home for some quality time with his wife and four kids, which results in the most brilliantly scripted moment in the history of cinema. As Stauffenberg slow-dances with his wife, Nina, on the night of his homecoming, they share an unspoken exchange of crucial information: Nina is pregnant and Stauffenberg is happy, but troubled over the thought of bringing another child into this uncertain world. Sounds routine, right? Well, read for yourself, bucko!
INT. STAUFFENBERG FLAT – LIVING ROOM – NIGHT
Stauffenberg and Nina dance with one another to the delight of their children. We gradually PUSH IN tight on their faces, watching an entire conversation take place without dialogue. Each has a secret the other can guess. Stauffenberg looks at Nina, then her belly, first realizing and then questioning. Nina smiles and nods. Stauffenberg hugs her, delighted, but his delight is tainted with worry.
Then the tables turn. Nina looks at Stauffenberg, as if divining his secret. His face never changes – a statue with that same tainted smile. In her face, we see slow, grim realization. She may not know exactly what is going on, but she knows it is something. She does her best to keep smiling for the children. After the longest of moments, she nods "All right." Then she puts her head on his shoulder, hiding her fears.
It is an important moment. Read it again, taking the time to picture it in your mind. Then leave it alone. Done right it’s a beautiful scene about a man, his family and the fate of the world.
Wow. That’s breathtaking. But, if I may, it’s missing something.
INT. STAUFFENBERG FLAT – LIVING ROOM – MAGIC HOUR
Stauffenberg and Nina lambada with one another to the bewilderment of their children. We gradually PUSH IN tight on their sweat-sheened faces, watching an entire conversation take place without dialogue. Each has a secret the other can guess. Stauffenberg looks at Nina, then her belly, then the kids, then back to her belly, then to his brother, then angrily back to Nina, finally realizing and then questioning. Nina frowns and nods. Stauffenberg throws her across the room, furious, but his anger is tainted with sexual gratification.
Then the tables turn. Nina looks at Stauffenberg, then his crotch, then to her brother-in-law, as if divining his secret. His face never changes – a statue with that same toothsome grin that says "What the fuck!" In her face, we see slow, dim realization. Hampered her entire life by a double-digit IQ, she may not know exactly what is going on, but she knows it is something. Shit, even the family dog has Stauffenberg figured. She does her best to laugh off the sudden burst of violence for the children, but they’re inconsolable. After the longest of moments, she nods "Wiener schnitzel." Then she puts her head on his ankle, hiding her rank stupidity.
It is an epochal moment. Read it again – carefully this time, you complete fucking idiot. Take the time to picture it in your mind’s eye. Then read it aloud, affecting a British accent as close to Alistair Cooke’s as you can manage. Then leave it alone. Done right it’s a luminous scene that will cure cancer, AIDS and incontinence about a man, his family, his brother, the cook, the thief, his wife, her lover and the fate of the world.
Realizing the stakes, Stauffenberg has no choice but to join the resistance plot against the nefarious Hitler. Though Stauffenberg is respected by most of the anti-Nazi camp, he must overcome their political and bureaucratic instincts to effectively execute their risky coup. After a good deal of arguing, Stauffenberg has an epiphany. They should take crafty advantage of Operation Valkyrie: a Hitler-approved plan that calls on the Reserve Army to seize control of the government in case the Fuhrer is captured or killed. With the assistance of fellow resistance member General Friedrich Olbricht, one of the commanders of the "Home Army", and a little internal finessing, Stauffenberg believes they could fool people into believing the SS has plotted to overthrow the government, while relying on a prevailing anti-Hitler sentiment to complete their sneaky military coup. Once in power, they’ll surrender to the Allies and cease the killing of their countrymen.
From here, McQuarrie plots with Hollywood-honed efficacy; he knows how to keep us engaged even as he indulges in one stock scene after another. This alone will probably be enough to keep audiences involved despite knowing that Stauffenberg’s plot is doomed to fail. One of Singer’s strengths, Superman Returns notwithstanding, is pacing, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that he’ll keep things moving. Unfortunately, the screenplay really does read like it was belched out of the same factory that gave us The Last Samurai. There’s actually a scene, post-assassination attempt, where Stauffenberg pauses to remark, "It’s quiet", prompting McQuarrie and Alexander to write in the ensuing action, "Too quiet". McQuarrie is better than this. But, considering how much he stands to make on Valkyrie (his first produced screenplay since The Way of the Gun), I guess I can give him a pass.
Why It Should Be Entertaining: It’s polished product from guys who’ve got a really solid track record with this kind of material. Also, Singer decides to incorporate my rewrite.
Why It Will Suck: Singer will shoot the script.
What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: Maybe a new Chan-Wook Park movie?
*Unless this exchange between Stauffenberg and General Friedrich Olbricht does it for you.
Olbricht: It makes no sense. You opposed Hitler, you opposed the war.
Stauffenberg: The people chose otherwise and here we are. Now we have to win. You know what will happen if we don’t.
Olbricht: If we win, it will still be Hitler’s Germany.
Stauffenberg: We all took an oath, General.
Olbricht: Alexander, be reasonable!!!
Stauffenberg: What the fuck are you talking about? (Urinates on Olbricht.)