Possibly the best thing anyone can say about Valkyrie – and this is not intended as some kind of put-down – is that Bryan Singer’s movie takes a story with an ending that is blindingly obvious to the entire audience and makes it suspenseful. Hopefully our education system has not deteriorated to the point where people walking into a film about an attempt on Hitler’s life will be ignorant of the plot’s outcome, but even people who know about Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to blow up Der Fuehrer will find themselves on the edges of their seats in the movie’s third act as the coup comes so very close to success.
Weirdly, this is pretty much the only level on which Valkyrie works. Singer (and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander) have essentially made a very serious caper movie, ignoring any sort of moral or philosophical concepts that one could explore in a movie about a few good Germans trying to get rid of the bad ones. It’s a prestigiously cast thriller, but Valkyrie never rises above – or seems to even aspire above – being just a thriller.
Tom Cruise sits at the center of Valkyrie as Stauffenberg, the one eyed, one handed German soldier who decides that the only way to save The Fatherland in the final days of World War II is to betray it and kill Hitler. He finds himself in an elite conspiracy made up of some of the highest ranked members of the German political and military system, and he decides to use a coup-battling contingency plan (called Valkyrie) as the way to actually effect a coup. It’s a highwire act that requires Stauffenberg himself to get Hitler to sign off on an amended Valkyrie and then place a bomb in Der Fuehrer’s presence, as well as getting away safely and taking over Berlin’s administrative and beauracratic facilities. There’s a delicious irony to the idea of using Hitler’s paranoia and beauracracy against itself, although the movie doesn’t seem to quite note that. It just keeps moving along as a high toned thriller.
Cruise, despite many worries, is perfectly fine as the American-accented Kraut (there are some who may find the wide array of accents on display – from Thomas Kretschmann’s German to Cruise’s American to everybody else’s variations of English – distracting, but it wasn’t all that big of a deal to me. Being annoyed by that feels like a nitpick), although his character as written is stiff, uninteresting and shockingly arc-free. Stauffenberg’s actual first lines in the film are a declaration that he would like to kill Hitler, and he never moves from that plan or shows a hint of doubt. There’s zero journey for this character, and we never get a look at the turmoil that must have accompanied the man making this decision. The movie feels like it’s part two of a two part miniseries, and part one was where all of the steps that Stauffenberg took to go from a loyal German to a traitor willing to risk his life happened.
Part one was also, as former CHUD writer Mr. Beaks noted to me, where Kenneth Branagh’s character had a role. Branagh shows up at the beginning as the leader of the conspiracy, and then he’s shipped off to the front. He never shows up again until the end, when the conspiracy is captured and he meets his final fate (I don’t feel like this is a spoiler – you can’t imagine that people taking part in a conspiracy to kill Hitler will have met happy endings), but he’s presented as a major character. It’s all part of the feeling that at least the first act, if not a whole first movie, was jettisoned in an attempt to make a pacier, more streamlined film.
Which works on its own terms. Singer has a murderer’s row of English actors at his disposal, including the aforementioned Branagh, Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson. Each of these actors dig into fairly slight roles, and each of them brings more doubt and confusion to their character’s obviously tortured psyches than Cruise can seem to rustle up. As a result, each and every single other character feels more complex and identifiable than Stauffenberg (except for his wife, played by Carice Van Houten, who is completely and criminally underused. Like Branagh, she feels like a character who had a bigger role in part one of this miniseries). Again, it’s not that Cruise is bad – he’s fine in the role – it’s just that his character is sort of a bullet, always moving ahead and never giving any problem a second thought. He’s a weird main character, and not one who we can ever feel like we understand.
While all of these actors class up the joint in delightful ways, they also give Valkyrie the feeling of a BBC drama. Singer’s movie, while exciting in the third act, never quite becomes thrilling. It’s part of the film’s internal disconnect that it’s a heist movie without thrills and a serious film without thoughts. While watching Valkyrie I kept thinking about those Discovery Channel documentaries that feature lots of re-enactments that are shown silently while the narrator describes what’s happening, people’s motivations and what they’re thining. Valkyrie often plays like those re-enactments writ large with terrific actors. There’s a feeling that what’s missing is something deeper than just showing the events.
Valkyrie‘s not a stiff, but it’s a minor film at best. Without enough going on under the snappy German army hat to make it a prestige picture and without enough thrills and excitement to make it a mainstream audience picture, Valkyrie sits somewhere in no man’s land. It’s hard to imagine anyone really loving this movie or, for that matter, really hating it. Well made and mostly well acted, Valkyrie is an exercise more than a complete motion picture, the kind of movie that Singer probably should have made for a miniscule budget. I see Valkyrie as Singer trying to find the middle ground between his earlier, better work and his latest, studio blockbuster stuff. To put my metaphor into horrible WWII terms, it’s not like he invaded Russia in winter, but it’s also no D-Day landing.