'Valkyrie'


December 25, 2008

"Valkyrie"

Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. (MGM)

An unfussy, adult and stoic Tom Cruise anchors the World War II thriller Valkyrie. In a compact performance of nerve and rare glimpses of emotion, Cruise is a leading man who takes us through a complex story, and ennobles and personalizes events that have now almost faded into history.

This Bryan Singer film is about the most famous attempt by Germans to kill the Fuehrer who led the world into war and Germany into horror. And it is about the man at the center of that conspiracy, Claus von Stauffenberg. He was an army officer from German nobility, that rare man with the resolve, "tenacity and determination, " historian Roger Moorhouse says in his book, Killing Hitler, to carry out an attempted coup to "save Germany."

Valkyrie introduces the principals -- civilians struggling to find a way to seize control of government from a military dictatorship, Wehrmacht officers appalled by the "stain" the mass murderer Hitler had brought to the Army.

"We have to show the world that not all of us were like him," longtime plotter Major General Henning von Tresckow ( Kenneth Branagh) reminds the others.

Despite taking an oath of loyalty to Adolph Hitler himself, Army officers were willing to attempt assassinations, especially after the war turned unwinnable. Von Stauffenberg, a Nazi hater early on, lost an eye, a hand and fingers in service to his country. But he was driven to feel he had one last duty he could perform for Germany.

Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) ably handles the story's ticking-clock elements, the many attempts that failed, the rising stakes as the conspirators risk discovery and certain execution. The final attempt is filmed crisply in a way that hides the outcome even as the coup unfolds. Christopher McQuarrie's script gives us distinct personalities, even if we've never heard of them. There's the dithering general (Bill Nighy), the brave figurehead (Terrence Stamp), the opportunist in charge of the Home Guard (Tom Wilkinson) and the mysterious "inside man" ( Eddie Izzard) who may or may not help when the chips are down.

But the movie sorely needs that conversion moment, the "kill everyone" orders that tarred the army with the same civilian-murdering brush that the SS had. What resistance there was in the German military was born in those massacres. The film introduces von Stauffenberg's wife (Carice van Houten of Black Book), and small children, letting us see what he has at stake. But it lacks the sense of desperation as they raced the clock trying to separate the nation and its people from the public face that the world was united to destroy.

The historian David McCullough has often said that we must remember that the people taking part in great events don't have our gift of hindsight. They don't know how things will turn out. That informs Cruise's performance as Stauffenberg. He isn't a fatalist, sprinting toward his doom. He is pragmatic, a poker-faced gambler willing to risk all because he's sure of himself and his abilities and he likes his odds.

In Cruise's hands, von Stauffenberg comes off as a very human window into this history and this engrossing and involving movie.