Sunday, April 27, 2014

Valkyrie (2008)

Director: Bryan Singer                                    Writers: Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander
Film Score: John Ottman                                Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp

The story of Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate Hitler during World War Two, has been told several times on film but this is only the second film to focus exclusively on Claus von Stauffenberg, the military colonel who came up with the plot and planted the bomb. Officials in Germany were not thrilled with Tom Cruise being cast in the role because of his belief in scientology, but eventually the fact that the film would tell the story of von Stauffenberg and so many others who resisted Hitler, caused them to eventually gve permission for the company to film in certain historical buildings in Berlin, even though the story had been filmed in German a few years earlier as Operation Valkyrie. While director Bryan Singer, who had made a series of Superman films, would not seem a likely choice for an historical drama of this nature, he had filmed Stephen King’s Apt Pupil which dealt tangentially with Nazism. Cruise was chosen for his obvious cache both in pre-production and at the box office. And it is a very good film, regardless of your thoughts about Cruise.

The film begins eerily with the oath to Hitler being shouted out. The scene then shifts to Tom Cruise as von Stauffenberg being disabled in North Africa, but not without first letting the audience know how much he hates what Hitler is doing. When a bomb planted on Hitler’s plane, engineered by Kenneth Branagh, fails to blow up, Cruise is recruited to assist with removing Hitler. He doesn’t believe in suicide missions, however, and wants something with a possibility of success. That’s when he comes up with Valkyrie, Hitler’s own plan to mobilize Germany’s version of the National Guard were he to be killed. With so many high-ranking officers in Berlin on their side, all they have to do is blame the death on the SS and use the mobilization to take over the government themselves. Of course the plan calls for killing Hitler, something that Cruise has no problem with at all. They also have to get key personnel, like general Tom Wilkinson and Hitler staff member Eddie Izzard to along once the plan gets rolling.

The film is incredibly suspenseful, even knowing what the outcome is. The conspirators came very close to pulling it off but circumstances, as they sometimes do, worked against them. Though Tom Cruise most definitely wouldn’t be my first choice for this project, he does a credible job. Fortunately he has a terrific supporting cast. Kenneth Branagh was chilling playing Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy, and does well in a brief part playing a conspirator here. Bill Nighy gets a lot of screen time as a general at Berlin’s high command, but his character is too cowardly for his position and ultimately winds up being responsible for the failure of the plot. Tom Wilkinson is wonderful as the general who goes where the wind blows and can’t be counted on, while Terence Stamp is the retired general who heads the conspiracy. Eddie Izzard is good as Cruise’s man on the inside, and an utterly believable Thomas Kretschmann is the major who is the key to taking command of the city. And finally, Dutch actress Carice van Houten has a small role as Cruise’s wife.

In spite of the comic book affiliations of director Bryan Singer, the film looks great and deserved a much better box office reception that it received. Of course critics both in Europe and America bashed Tom Cruise’s performance, which led to lower sales that expected and diminished the reputation of a film that deserves to be seen, and a story that needs to be told. It’s difficult to convey the fear that pervaded nearly every strata of German society at the time, and therefore difficult to gauge the depth of the resistance movement within the country during the Nazi era, but it was extensive. This film goes a long way to rectifying that situation. Again, in spite of what you think of Tom Cruise this is a very good film that is well done cinematically, and is definitely entertaining. And while there are certainly elements that reek of Hollywood it’s almost beside the point. The story is what demands attention here. As such, Valkryie is a solid, well-realized historical drama that deserves a place in any World War Two collection of films.

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