Judging by Mark Twain's comment about the music of Richard Wagner ("better than it sounds"), if Twain were around to see "Valkyrie" he'd likely say it's better than it seems.
Faint praise for an interesting film with an asterisk, the asterisk being Tom Cruise. Director Bryan Singer's drama about a plot to assassinate Hitler—the one that came closest to succeeding, on July 20, 1944—scrubs its protagonist clean for the purposes of pop movie salesmanship. Singer made "The Usual Suspects"; he knows a thing or two about keeping hushed conversations in enclosed rooms nice and tense. Working here from a script by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, the film focuses on a handful of key German officers who joined the scattered resistance and went to work on a plan to eliminate the Führer. These men had the idea to put themselves in charge as a Reserve Army government replacing the Third Reich after Hitler's death. "Operation Valkyrie," named for the riders of Wagner's "Ring Cycle," was the name.
Thomas Kretschmann and Kenneth Branagh in supporting roles, this ensemble piece avoids the usual action-movie triumphalism. It is, after all, a chronicle of failure.
The aristocratic intellectual Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the assassination plot's crucial player, is played by Cruise, and honestly, he isn't bad in the role. Singer keeps him in check. Cruise, however, betrays some nervousness about being upstaged by so many sterling British character men. His counterstrategy: keep the voice low, keep the American dialect as neutral as possible and keep the bearing ramrod-straight. All the same, Cruise cannot suggest the aristocratic hauteur or the steely authority needed in this role. Watching "Valkyrie" (which begins with a tense, well-staged battle scene in 1943 Tunisia in which Stauffenberg nearly dies), you wonder why the German officer we're rooting for is an American, while most of the other Germans are British, except Wilkinson, who is English but really does seem like a Nazi.
There's also the matter of Stauffenberg himself. This cultured aesthete turned against his supreme commander for various reasons, and his revulsion regarding the Final Solution may well have been one of them. Yet his letters to his wife years earlier contain various indications of ingrained anti-Semitism. "Poland contained many Jews," goes one bit of correspondence, "many people of mixed blood ... who are only happy when they are dominated." As Alex Ross wrote in a 1997 Slate review of a Stauffenberg biography: "Stauffenberg's attitude toward Jews can be sensed in this inscrutable sentence from a resistance manifesto: 'We want a New Order which makes all Germans supporters of the state and guarantees them law and justice, but we scorn the lie of equality and we bow before the hierarchies established by nature.' "
"Valkyrie" is not about Stauffenberg's change of heart. It's a procedural, often absorbing, rarely surprising, about a briefcase bomb and a near-miss. Yet there's no question the film feels dodgy and vague when it comes to the personalities and ideology of the men onscreen. Does a big-budget project, designed to turn a profit on its risky investment, have an obligation to tell the whole truth about a historical figure? Of course not. But telling more of the truth would've made for a more provocative experience.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence and brief strong language).
Running time: 2:00.
Opening: Dec. 25.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Col. Claus von Stauffenberg); Kenneth Branagh (Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow); Bill Nighy (Gen. Friedrich Olbricht); Tom Wilkinson (Gen. Friedrich Fromm); Carice van Houten (Nina von Stauffenberg); Thomas Kretschmann (Maj. Otto Ernst Remer); Terence Stamp (Ludwig Beck); Eddie Izzard (Gen. Erich Fellgiebel).
Directed by: Bryan Singer; written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander; photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman; music by Ottman; production design by Lilly Kilvert and Patrick Lumb; produced by Singer, McQuarrie and Gilbert Adler. A United Artists release.
'Valkyrie' --2 1/2 stars