by Jason Coffman
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I’m going to get this out of the way right at the top: if you didn’t know that Valkyrie had had such a long and messy road to its theatrical release, you certainly wouldn’t guess it from the final product. Stories of awful test screenings and reshoots and Tom Cruise’s German accent have dogged the film, but the finished product bears no scars from its difficult production. In many ways, Valkyrie is a throwback to classic WWII thrillers— clean-cut, tightly edited, and often extremely tense. It couldn’t be more different than Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, with which it shares several cast members— ironically, Verhoeven’s film feels more modern than Bryan Singer’s deadly-serious tribute to WWII films past.
Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, exiled to the desert for making what must have been some seriously disrespectful remarks regarding Nazi policy. As the film opens, Stauffenberg is bargaining with a higher officer to try and get as many of his men back to Germany alive as possible. Unfortunately, an air raid cuts his regiment down and leaves him severely injured, losing his left eye and his right hand, as well as two fingers on his left hand. Already unhappy with Hitler’s policies and sensing a major Allied push toward Berlin, Stauffenberg is enlisted by Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) and General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) to join a group of German resistance planning to overthrow Hitler in the hopes of brokering a peace treaty with the Allied forces before Germany is destroyed.
Stauffenberg invents a complicated plan that involves the assassination of Hitler (David Bamber) and the use of his personal guard to seize power in just such a case: Operation Valkyrie, as it was called, would ensure that no one would be able to overpower Hitler’s regime in the event of his death. Since members of the resistance were in positions of power over the guard, the death of Hitler would allow the resistance to seize control of Berlin and eventually all occupied territories while appointing an interim government to make peace with the Allied forces. The plot and characters in Valkyrie are based in fact, and while certain liberties have been taken with the facts (as in any such film), it’s a fascinating story that many people probably are not aware of.
This refreshing take on WWII intrigue is helped along by an excellent cast: Cruise is not bad at all as Stauffenberg, and he’s surrounded by uniformly fine performances from Branagh, Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, and Eddie Izzard. Then there’s the Black Book alumni of Carice van Houten, Waldemar Kobus, Christian Berkel and Halina Reijn. It’s too bad that van Houten didn’t have more to do in this film, but as Stauffenberg’s wife her role in this story is necessarily brief. In fact, the film has so many characters that many of them don’t have much screen time, but each member of the cast makes their mark. For just one example, this is the second film this year (after RocknRolla) with Tom Wilkinson as a memorable bastard.
Valkyrie is surprisingly light on the action and violence, instead relying on tense dialogue scenes and carefully choreographed set pieces of the resistance plans in motion. Singer has put together a great cast, given them a great story, and executes the whole thing with a sure hand. Perhaps it’s this technical excellence that leads to the film’s one major problem: if anything, Valkyrie feels a little cold, its portrayal of Stauffenberg set at an odd distance, even though we watch him in virtually every scene in the film. Perhaps Cruise is actually too good at playing Stauffenberg, a man who had to be a completely different person to the public and his superiors than the one he actually was. We get moments of his uncertainty and vulnerability, but they’re fleeting— perhaps if the film had stuck more closely to the real Stauffenberg it would have felt more intimate.
It’s unlikely that Valkyrie is going to unseat any film in your personal “top ten WWII movies” list. But it’s just as unlikely that you will find your time with it anything but well-spent. It’s a well-executed take on a little-known tale of heroism from an era that seems like an inexhaustible well of such stories. If you think you’re tired of WWII films (and/or you haven’t seen Black Book!), Valkyrie could very well change your mind.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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