Status: No longer in theaters (opened 12/25/08)
Directed By: Bryan Singer
Written By: Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander
Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson
I have to assume that, outside of WWII or general history buffs, most people have a general idea of how Adolf Hitler died, but are not typically aware of the several failed prior plots to take his life. I count myself among this group, and recognizing that it might be naive of me to presume that I am no more ignorant of this piece of history than the typical moviegoer, I feel that historical accuracy is Valkyrie‘s downfall: the plot centers around a failed 1944 attempt to kill Hitler, and its suspense is betrayed by the fact that we’re aware of its outcome going in. Imagine the story of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, told from the perspective of John Hinckley, Jr. as the protagonist, and you’re only experiencing a slight exaggeration (perverted by the fact that Reagan wasn’t generally considered to be one of the most evil men to ever live, of course, but the dramatic perspective would be similar).
It doesn’t help that the general public never gave this film a chance. There were widespread reports of the kind of massive nerd hysteria that can only be found on the internet, demonstrating a kind of unfair prejudice that even a Scientologist probably doesn’t deserve, as Ebert so eloquently pointed out. Questionable writing and direction don’t help silence the premature critics, either, but the film does have more redeeming qualities than the results of a typical Google search might have you believe.
The focus of the story is on the planning of the Hitler assassination attempt, concentrating on the involvement and perspective of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), and the plot itself is certainly intriguing. We get not only an overview of Germany during WWII, but also a survey of the internal workings of the Nazi government, not to mention a cool and interesting look at 1940s-era technology—particularly in the improvised bomb department. We’re introduced to a ton of characters during the film’s lengthy exposition, including several high-ranking Wehrmacht officers and a secret cabal of Germans intent on overthrowing their government. In fact, there are so many intersecting interests and so many characters who serve important functions yet do not warrant enough screen time to become familiar with, that frankly it’s all a bit too much to keep track of, and somewhat confusing. Valkyrie is a movie that knows it’s going to go over the heads of most of the members of its audience, and it tempers this by always making sure that we’re aware of the main thread of its story: von Stauffenberg is going to kill Hitler, and using some esoteric military plans and procedures, the Resistance of which he is a part will take over Germany. How many of the details you care to pay attention to are going to depend on your level of interest in the specific subject matter, and on how much effort you wish to put in to make note of each character’s function, desire, and role in the grander scheme.
Singer makes use of some directorial tricks to aid in this, most prominently the decision to have all of the characters speak unaccented (for the most part) English. This is one of the things the aforementioned nerd-vultures jumped on as a sign of Cruise’s supposedly bad acting, but it’s actually handled fairly well, using a device similar to that used in The Hunt for Red October. Personifying the German Resistance movement primarily as von Stauffenberg makes for a more relatable drama, too, and there’s a trick he and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie play with keeping the results of a major plot event a secret long past the point of audience frustration, which might have been even more annoying if it didn’t succeed so well at maintaining dramatic tension.
Ultimately, though, we know the outcome, even if we do have trouble following the intricacies, and the main plot is one area where the film shouldn’t assume it can continue to sail over its audience’s heads, but it does. There’s a lot of talent here, from a director we know as talented to a very sound and broad ensemble cast. They’re in a bit too deep for their own good, though, and the balancing act they play between historical accuracy and dramatic structure is not completely pulled off. It’s a fairly intriguing effort, though.