December 25, 2008

REVIEW: Valkyrie (B+)

The biggest surprise of Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, besides the fact that Hitler lives (surprise!), is that it only took about five minutes for me to accept that S.S. officers were speaking with American and British accents. Part of this is because the first few minutes are mostly taken up by a massive bombing sequence that drowns out all voices, but most of it is because early on in the movie I realized I was hooked, and what was being said was more urgently important than how it was being said.

How is it possible to become gripped with suspense when the ending of the story is already known? I can't very well explain it but by pointing to something like United 93 or, more recently, Man on Wire (the relation between the two being eerily but entirely coincidental). One argument could be that it's the mark of good storytelling, but that would only make sense if Singer's recent movies (Superman Returns, X-Men, X2) had not been such dull stories compared to his earlier ones (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil). In any case, while part of Valkyrie's success as a narrative may be Singer's direction, the rest of it must be due to the significance of the issue at hand: a brazen assassination attempt on Hitler by officers in his own army, led by Colonel Claus con Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise).

It's a story that I have to admit I was only vaguely familiar with beforehand. Even if I recognized a handful of the participant's names, I knew nothing about the details of the planned coup, or how it ultimately went awry. Fortunately for me, Singer is a gifted director when it comes to suspense, occasionally injecting spooks and frights but otherwise maintaining a palpable amount of tension throughout the most important scenes. Indeed, Valkyrie's is the type of historical thriller that, at the peak of its power (right at about the halfway mark), sucked the breath out of the room and elicited involuntary cries of "Oh no!" from the audience. I wonder if I was the only one who was reminded of the NOC list heist scene in Mission: Impossible.

Chances are, because I doubt anybody else in the theater was waxing nostalgic about Tom Cruise The Actor (as I like to define him) like I was. What can I say? I love the guy's work, whether screaming at a video monitor in Tropic Thunder or screaming over the phone in Valkyrie. He consistently plays different versions of the same character (Born on the Fourth of July and Collateral being notable exceptions), but I enjoy all of them, especially when, as in Valkyrie (and The Firm and A Few Good Men), he plays the petulant, defiant hero.

Although this is Cruise's movie from beginning to end, the supporting performances by a cast that includes great character actors like Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson shouldn't be overlooked. Nor should the meticulous attention to detail in all aspects of the production, including the scenes filmed on location in Berlin (which were temporarily in jeopardy when Germany prohibited Cruise from working in the country due to his devotion to Scientology).

Is it that hard to find German actors these days?

Despite all of the praise I've lauded on Valkyrie, it's not without its flaws. For one thing, we really have no idea who Claus von Stauffenberg was or what his motives were in overthrowing the Third Reich. An awkward narration of a diary entry as the film opens is an attempt at setting the stage, but it's inadequate when it's not confusing (Cruise switches from English to accented German halfway through it). Additionally (though perhaps this shouldn't be considered a point of criticism), the message of hope in Valkyrie is almost completely ruined by the devastating ending. I wasn't expecting a triumph of the human spirit like Slumdog Millionaire, but it would have been nice to learn how von Stauffenberg inspired other mutinies throughout history, or how Operation Valkyrie ultimately affected the Nazi war effort. In that light, Valkyrie should not be viewed as an insightful historical account (compared to something like 2004's outstanding Downfall), but as a watchable suspense thriller it, like von Stauffenberg, almost gets the job done.

Writing - 7
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+


  1. I saw this film yesterday morning with Allan fish at a local multiplex right before we say FROST/NIXON. I am happy the film mostly worked for you, but to be honest I found it laughable and pedestrian. There was neither depth, nor enlightenment--the whole thing was re-enactment with some embellishment for cinematic purposes. Cruise was (for me) his usual detrimental self, and I never got used to him. Other fine actors like Tom wilkinson and Kenneth Branagh were lamentable and even the label 'guilty pleasure' might be overstating things. I am always interested in this historical period, and the film was not without its 'moments' but 2/5 is about all I would go with here.
    Thought-provoking piece as always, but it does seem you and I haven't agreed all that much over the past two months. But so what, you're still Dan getahun, and that trumps all.

  2. Thank you as always for the honest and well-thought out reasoning, Sam. It's often much more interesting to think about these movies when people have differing viewpoints. With Valkyrie I was impressed by the suspense of the key action scenes (and again, i didn't know the details going in), and of course I'm extremely biased toward Cruise.

    We can agree on the fact that Wilkinson and Branagh are "fine actors", though. It would have been nice to see more of Branagh especially - he kind of disappeared after the first 10 minutes.

  3. Dan, no doubt about it, both Branagh and Wilkinson are very fine actors, and I definitely wanted to see more of the former.

  4. ... it only took about five minutes for me to accept that S.S. officers were speaking with American and British accents.

    I got into an argument with my wife over this point (she's not a Cruise fan), she said he's speaking with an American accent! and I said (sweetly, I thought) that what difference what accent they speak in, they're speaking ENGLISH, and unless I miss my guess, that wasn't the language that was used in the actual events.

    So, what? It's more realistic for them to be speaking the wrong language in a German accent than in British and American?

    (It reminds me of some of the old American war movies where the Germans all spoke with British accents ...)

  5. Right, right. It's a big mess. I accepted prior to going into it that they wouldn't be speaking German. It was unfortunate, but as you say, it happens so often that you almost have to expect it (though again, the use of the native language almost always makes for a better movie). And besides, hearing Cruise speak German for that short time was enough to make me know I didn't want it throughout.

    Now had they spoken English with a German accent, well they probably would have sounded worse than anything.

    I just don't know why they couldn't get German actors in on this - wouldn't sell as well as a major movie, I guess.

    Also, I need to make a correction here. I've learned that many of the plotters in this movie were actually not S.S. officers but rather officers in the armed forces, the difference being their role wasn't to seek out dissidents. I think.


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