My wife and I rented Valkyrie last night with some friends. It was the only thing playing On-Demand that none of us had seen (aside from Fired Up!, but who wants to watch a PG-13 titty comedy?). To our dismay, the movie was not the laugh-riot we thought it would be, and proved to be a bland historical drama with zero heft and even less German accents.
As you probably know by now, Valkyrie tells the story of a group of Brits determined to end the career of a dangerous egomaniac—but enough about Tom Cruise.
"Valkyrie" is the name of Adolph Hitler’s World War II contingency plan, an operation that would activate thousands of loyal soldiers in the event of his death or ouster. A group of conscientious Nazi officers (feel free to chuckle) decide to assassinate the dictator and use Valkyrie to over-throw the SS in a coup d’etat; using their newfound power, they would negotiate an end to the war with the Allies. Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a war hero who lost an eye in Africa and must now wear a patch that has more texture than the actor’s performance.
I shouldn’t beat up on Cruise, I guess. I really want to fault him for not even trying a German accent (he plays the entire movie on the same note as he delivered his “You’ve never seen me really upset” line in Mission: Impossible), but he’s apparently just following orders: director Bryan Singer populates his film with a cast made of 99% British actors—all speaking the King’s, all playing Germans. It’s so distracting that at a certain point I became convinced that the Nazi high command had been infiltrated by MI6 and Hitler was just playing along. Singer tries to make up for this Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves shoddiness by hiring every Englishman working in Hollywood today, from Bill Nighy to Kenneth Branagh, but by the time Eddie Izzard shows up, you can’t help but think he’s got something against the German people—aside from, you know, the obvious.
The film’s central failing is that there’s very little in the way of suspense. Much like The Passion of the Christ, we all know how the story ends—or at least that Hitler wasn’t assassinated. The details of von Stauffenberg’s plots are interesting, and it’s cool to see how fate intervened in some key moments, but there’s a very even keel to the proceedings; so much of the movie involves people sitting around, smoking, talking, hoping not to get caught that Valkyrie’s version of “high drama” is an officer almost walking in on von Stauffenberg changing clothes. The bunker scene, which is the first of two very drawn-out climaxes, happens way too early and Singer mistakenly relies on the audience’s ability to pretend that we don’t know what von Stauffenberg’s men don’t know: that Hitler survived the attempt. This leads to a frustrating half hour of simply waiting for the coup to unravel and for everyone involved to be rounded up and executed.
I’m glad to have missed this in the theatre, which is not something I say often. The film looks great, and you can tell the production design team had a blast building bunkers and sewing swastikas, but the film is too cold to sustain anything but appreciation for the sets. Singer usually brings more panache to his projects—The Usual Suspects is still his high water mark for suspense, acting, and mood—and it’s disheartening to see him churn out Oscar Bait that would be upstaged by a History Channel production.
If you're looking for a genuinely thrilling World War II film, I recommend Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds--and please see it on the big screen. Though it's a tall tale, the details and drama are utterly convincing and--unlike Valkyrie--unforgettable. The highlight of the movie, as I've written elsewhere, is Christoph Waltz's SS-officer-on-a-mission; the actor's multi-lingual performance screams authenticity (unlike Cruise, who at one point pronounces Joseph Goebbels' last name "Go-bulls"), and it's a shame that both films could not have been released at the same time. We might have lost the careers of both Cruise and Singer in that scenario, with audiences leaving Valkyrie in droves to behold the work of a filmmaker and lead actor with both passion and a point of view.