Valkyrie

Review by Matt Bochenski @MattLWLies

Directed by

Bryan Singer

Starring

Bill Nighy Carice van Houten Tom Cruise

Anticipation.

Epic bad buzz. A German-themed Mission: Impossible, or just an impossible mission to sit through it?

Enjoyment.

Valkyrie is a solid, old-fashioned action yarn with plenty of tense twists and thrills.

In Retrospect.

Don’t believe the hype.

Tom Cruise plays a Nazi with a moral compass in this drab historical drama from director Bryan Singer.

“Only God can judge us now,” says Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. But then, von Stauffenberg didn’t live to see the internet. How do you approach a film like Valkyrie? Do you pretend not to have heard the endless chatter? The bad buzz? Do you politely ignore the release date changes? Because make no mistake: this film was meant to be awful. Tom Cruise as a Nazi? What else could he bring to the role except inevitable failure?

Von Stauffenberg is one of the few German heroes of World War 2. He led a group of high-ranking officers in a daring plot to assassinate Hitler and take control of Berlin. The plan was to blow-up the Führer in his bunker, blame the attack on an SS coup, sever communications to the outside world and put ‘Operation Valkyrie’ into effect; a standing order that would give the national guard the authority to seize control of key areas, while the plotters quietly installed a revolutionary government that would end the war.

What hubris, then, for the all-American Cruise to appropriate – no, steal! – this role for himself. And especially at a time when the Germans themselves have been knocking out superior, subversive war films, from Downfall to The Counterfeiters. They have the infrastructure, the talent and the right; what does Tom Cruise have? The name and the chequebook. For over a year now the knives have been sharpened: Valkyrie was so bad, so doomed, so utterly ill-conceived that it was going to destroy Cruise, bring down United Artists and leave Scientology itself in ashes. Oh, and it’s responsible for the credit crunch, too.

But this narrative forgets two things. The first is that the director, Bryan Singer, is a past master of edge-of-the-seat filmmaking. The second, more controversially, is that Tom Cruise is a stupendously charismatic movie star and an actor of proven pedigree. Put the two of them together and what do you think you’re going to get?

A disaster? Well, no, sorry. Valkyrie may not be awards bait but it is a solid, at times gripping, thriller that wrings every ounce of drama out of what is, at heart, a pulsating tale of the courage and idealism of some undone by the cowardice and politics of others.

There are, of course, problems – most obviously with the casting. The German high command is a Who’s Who of British thesps including Kenneth Brangah, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy and (ahem) Eddie Izzard. It’s as if an elite RADA class has been taken hostage by the Nazis. But the filmmakers do their best to move us past the discordance between what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing. In a neat trick, the film begins with the German ‘Walküre’ morphing into ‘Valkyrie’, while Cruise begins his voiceover in German before switching to English. It’s not the most elegant of solutions, but it works if you’re prepared to take a leap of imagination.

At its best, Valkyrie is an expertly assembled and tightly edited nail-biter (the staging of the attack is a dramatic masterclass), although Singer is a little too wedded to the glossy sheen of his blockbuster work. He’s a little too slick, a little too polished and oddly coquettish. Hitler is approached obliquely; Singer’s vision of the Führer in his eyrie at Berchtesgaden surrounded by his high command lacks punch, like something Edward Hopper might have painted if the Nazis had won the war.

And Cruise? Cruise is… Cruise. Commanding, focussed, energetic, projecting a performance that manages – just – to get beyond the costume that clothes but doesn’t confine him. There’s also a real frisson in watching him take a bullet. Exactly why, though, is something everyone will have their own answer for.

Published 23 Jan 2009

Tags: Bryan Singer Carice van Houten Tom Cruise

Anticipation.

Epic bad buzz. A German-themed Mission: Impossible, or just an impossible mission to sit through it?

Enjoyment.

Valkyrie is a solid, old-fashioned action yarn with plenty of tense twists and thrills.

In Retrospect.

Don’t believe the hype.

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