I prefer to watch movies alone at the theater, as I tend to find I can think about what I'm watching better when I'm by myself rather with friends. With Valkyrie, I decided to go with a group of friends who were mainly World War II buffs. They walked out of the movie, and seemed pretty satisfied about the movie's historical accuracy. In fact, the only gripe I heard was that they thought the actor who played Hitler (David Bamber) could have done a better job. As for myself, I walked out with a few more reservations.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me first say that Valkyrie is a very well made film. It's technically well done, the performances are generally very good, and director Bryan Singer (Superman Returns) keeps things moving at a brisk pace as it recaps the last assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler's life within his own army. That right there should kind of tell you one of my main reservations. I think it's safe to assume that I'm not exactly spoiling anything by telling you that the attempt is not successful. The movie tries to draw suspense out of having the characters wondering if Hitler is dead or not, while we the audience can only sit back and wait for the inevitable. Another sticking point is that the performances, while good, are somewhat distracting. And no, believe it or not, I'm not talking about the fact that Tom Cruise has been cast as a German colonel. Hollywood has had a strange obsession with casting British actors as Nazis, and while sometimes it works (Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List), here it kept on taking me out of the movie. I'm sorry, but when I see an actor dressed in a Nazi uniform, I don't want to say to myself, "Hey, that's the guy from The Full Monty".
Valkyrie is narrowly focused, and not really interested in the historical people who inhabit the story. About the only thing we learn is that there were a lot of people within Hitler's Reich who had grown to question what he was doing, and what was to become of Germany under his rule. The person at the center of the story is Claus von Staufenberg (Tom Cruise). He had already started to question Hitler's authority before he was severely wounded in an air strike attack. When he returns home, he teams up with Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) to join a resistance against Hitler. The plan that they and fellow conspirators dub Operation Valkyrie involves a new government that would take control after Hitler's passing, and secretly make peace with the Allied forces. Anyone who managed to stay awake in History Class will know well in advance that this plan is not going to work out as planned. What little suspense the film does manage to drum up is wether Claus' family will be able to survive once the assassination attempt goes wrong. And even this plot point is largely ignored, and pretty much resolved with a single throw away sentence during an epilogue at the very end of the film.
When James Cameron made Titanic 11 years ago, there's a very good reason why he didn't make his movie entirely about a ship hitting an iceberg. Valkyrie expects us to be entertained with its conspiracy plot, but I found it hard to get excited about anything. Part of this was because I knew what to expect, and part of it was due to the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. They seem so enamored by history and the setting that they completely forgot to give their characters personality or even lives outside of the situation at hand. We know that Claus' decision to participate in the Operation has to do with the safety of his family at home, but since we seldom get to see his family, it kind of turns into a plot gimmick instead of an actual motivation. The movie is built on a flimsy foundation of facts and statistics, but very little drama to drive the characters home.
As I said, the movie looks good and is well made. While Tom Cruise is a bit distracting at first, making no effort to hide his American accent, I got over it quick enough. Besides, there's very little for him to ruin, since the most distinguishing thing about Claus in this movie is his eye patch he's forced to wear after suffering injuries early on. The supporting cast is made up of very fine actors including Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Billy Nighy, Eddie Izzard, and Terrance Stamp. Unfortunately, they're mainly required to sit around and discuss the plot and statistics with grave seriousness. Their presence brings a lot of automatic prestige to the picture, but they seldom get to lift it up by showing their usual charisma. Because many of their characters are so underwritten, they often come across as historical caricatures instead of historical figures.
Valkyrie the movie kind of ends up resembling the actual military Operation it's named after. It's full of good intentions, but it just kind of falls apart in the end. The elements are here for great drama, and I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. I'm sure I'll be hearing from my accompanying friends when they read this review. They may protest, but I'm sticking to my guns. Everyone who was involved in the making of this movie had the talent to make a much better film than this.
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