(2008 ) Director: Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X2) | Writer: Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun)
If one paid attention to the media buzz during the filming of Valkyrie, one might have read that Tom Cruise loved wearing the Nazi uniform a little too much, or that the former Top Gun star spent his off-days sacrificing kittens to L. Ron Hubbard, or that he kept his much-taller wife and mogwai lookalike daughter locked in a broom closet when he wasn’t around. Any of those things might still be true, but the rumors that Cruise’s performance was the weak link in Bryan Singer’s intense World War II thriller were certainly unfounded. Cruise may not be the most subtle actor on Earth, but he’s much less a detraction from the otherwise-excellent Valkyrie than is the puzzling dearth of lead character depth and plotting by screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie.
In truth-based Valkyrie, Cruise plays Claus von Stauffenberg, Germany-loving Nazi colonel and famed anti-Hitler plotter, who, after having his hand and eye destroyed during a British attack in North Africa near the tail-end of WWII, finds his way into a secret Berlin committee with designs toward the overthrow of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Stauffenberg’s obsession with returning his homeland to a safe haven for his wife and children drives him to suggest enacting Operation Valkyrie, a secret military order with the potential to remove all offending parties from government in one fell swoop—provided Hitler bites the dust first. Thus Stauffenberg and his covert team of inside men jump attempt to execute a plan to blow the Fuhrer straight to heck with an especially volatile briefcase bomb. Of course, there are complications.
What should be the most severe complication is that anyone with a cursory knowledge of WWII history knows the outcome of this tale (hint: Hitler lived, at least for a little while longer), making it a testament to director Singer’s considerable talents that, instead of sucking, Valkyrie is one of the most gripping, suspenseful war films in recent memory. It doesn’t help that we are told little of Stauffenberg’s nationalistic motivations aside from his love for his family, and even at two hours, the film at times seems rushed (mostly in the truncated first act); but the performances from the supporting cast (especially the wormy Bill “The Science Guy” Nighy and Tom Wilkinson in a delightfully venomous turn) are outstanding, and Singer’s eye for color and angular composition are superb, leaving the film’s good-to-bad ratio heavy on the positive side.
If we were only shown more behind the characters’ desires for a free Germany—a conceit that would have sacrificed pace and dangerously bulked up the film’s running time—Valkyrie might have been a classic war epic; as it is, it’s a flawed-but-thrilling tale of one of the most important battles against evil the world will ever know, and, in Singer’s hands, much better than the movie-going universe will probably give it credit for.
Rating: Three and a Half of Five Stars