DIR: Bryan Singer • WRI: Christopher McQuarrie, Nathan Alexander • PRO: Gilbert Adler, Nathan Alexander, Lee Cleary, Christopher McQuarrie, Henning Molfenter, Bryan Singer, Jeffrey Wetzel, Charlie Woebcken • DOP: Newton Thomas Sigel • ED: John Ottman • DES: Lilly Kilvert, Patrick Lumb • CAST: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp
Take a moment to understand the degree of stigma surrounding the subject of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Now, add the tension of a cinematic portrayal of the mid-1940s that looks to the German population for acceptance. But then, unexpectedly, a different story reveals itself: Still 1940s, still Germany, but now proclaiming an unsung hero. Quite the sigh of relief…
Here’s the history lesson in a nutshell: Along with the majority of the world at the time, there were a lot of Germans not happy with Hitler’s endeavours around the time of the Second World War. This led to the formation of a small group of military officials who plotted a coup against the Führer. The leadership of this group eventually fell to Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, played by Tom Cruise, who is determined to rid them of ‘Germany’s arch-enemy’. To do so involved an assassination attempt on Hitler, and a follow up plan-of-attack (Operation Valkyrie), which entailed convincing the reserve army force that the SS had staged the coup, and thus relieve the Führer’s chain of command completely.
Valkyrie sees a shift in duties from regular collaborators Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie who have hooked up to form The Usual Suspects and X-Men previously. Director Singer has been focussing on box-office monsters of late, with X-Men, X2 and Superman Returns his three most recent projects. Writer McQuarrie meanwhile has been on the other end of the spectrum, writing The Way of the Gun as in-your-face as possible, a two-fingered gesture toward the major studios who wouldn’t allow him creative control. Valkyrie serves as the happy medium.
Although focussing on the 20th July 1944 plot, the film begins in North Africa where we see an Allied air-attack inflict the injuries that will leave Colonel Stauffenberg without his right hand, two fingers from his left, and his left eye. Stauffenberg continues forth, duly eye-patched, and over the forthcoming years, rises through the ranks of the German military and leads the opposition against the Nazi Regime in a powerful tale.
However, this is not a character portrait, and although the political implications are dealt with early on, what begins as an intriguing tale, well told, becomes a reasonably basic action film. This is unfortunate, as Stauffenberg seems a captivating fellow with enough intelligence to single-handedly stage a mutiny and enough ballsy grit to reveal his devious plans from the outset to new military colleagues. Also, the deeper politics of the scenario are wholly substituted by moral dilemmas, and although it is quite the mind-boggling experience – rooting for the allies while still passionately patriotic – this context is lost after thirty minutes.
Cruise is adequate in what is not ultimately a demanding role. The support cast pack a punch or two, with the shuffle of Adolf Hitler (David Bamber) creating genuine unease, both Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp are persuasive as usual and Jamie Parker deserves note for his nervous portrayal of Stauffenberg’s adjutant Lieutenant Werner von Haeften. Disappointingly, Christian Berkel’s authentic accent is the only one to grace the screen, apart from Cruise’s three-line German voiceover and some extras. There are a handful of beautiful shots: a roofless church making do as a rendezvous point, and the Wolf’s Lair (as the name suggests, Hitler’s bunker), which is blanketed in a dense wood and incomparable security.
You know what to expect from such an action film: some explosions, tense musical crescendos and an attempt at a moving finale. Valkyrie is not to be proclaimed a national treasure, but it has been welcomed by German military officials and critics nonetheless and is a fitting tribute to a soon-to-be icon. The end product, like the original story, brings some wiles and a tense moment or two, but fails to pack the punch intended.