MGM // 2008 // 121 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // May 11th, 2009
Many saw evil. They dared to stop it.
There are always two sides to every conflict, from single battle to all-out war. On the one hand you have the victors, the side that can claim the spoils and set the memory agenda for the rest of time. They make the remembrance rules and cloud the actual realities. Then you have the losers, the parties defeated and deterred from telling their version of events with any kind of honest clarity. In loss, they are illegitimate. During World War II, the German people were painted in a horrific red, white, and black drape, the perversion of an ancient symbol for good luck dominating our determination of what they all wanted. And in light of the way that history played out, it's hard to imagine any member of the Fatherland hating their government, let alone wanting to overthrow it for the good of the Nation. Yet that's exactly what happened when a rogue element in the German military, dedicated to country, not some psychotic, deranged leader, plotted the death of their "beloved" Fuehrer. Now international icon Tom Cruise steps in to tell the story of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and the conspiracy that attempted to change the course of WWII forever. For all its initial intrigue, however, Valkyrie just can't deliver a definitive "edge of your seat" statement.
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise, Tropic Thunder) considers himself a good German. He also considers himself a lapsed Nazi. Hating where the party is going, especially in light of issues both political and personal, he wants to help the Fatherland. As a result he is drawn into a plot to kill the current leader, Adolf Hitler, and replace him with an exiled member of the nation's elite. In order to do so, von Stauffenberg needs a pair of accomplices. General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy, Love Actually) will help with the bureaucratic ends, and his immediate superior General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton), himself unhappy about the Reich's war strategy, is willing to turn a blind military eye. All they need is a plan, and it comes in the form of "Project Valkyrie." Under the executive order, should anything happen to the Fuhrer, the army is to step in and maintain order. Von Stauffenberg decides to use this plan as a means of assisting in an all out coup. Now, all they need to do is assassinate Hitler...
There are two problems with Valkyrie. The first is less important but unavoidable if you consider the true story on which the film is based. As a narrative, the notion that this attempted coup will fail and that Hitler will live to take his own pathetic life in a bombed out Berlin bunker nine months later sounds like the perfect antidote to a period piece thriller. Afraid of driving audiences to nail-biting entertainment anguish? Set up a yarn where the main players are already known to fail and you have 90% of the suspense shifted away from your plotting. Now establish that the target in question is none other than the most evil Head of State ever to wield political power and you have a recipe for outright dismissal. That Valkyrie manages to be entertaining at all must be chalked up to the incredible cast who enlivens the material with the kind of heart-pumping dread that actually ropes one in. Without them, and the authenticity of the film's look and feel, we'd be left watching one of the most uninspired entries in the whole "truth is stranger than fiction" historical dynamic.
No, the main failing with this film is Bryan Singer. As a director, here's a talent whose taken a single significant masterwork -- The Usual Suspects -- and built it into a fourteen year fight against obscurity and irrelevance. Even those who defend his various superhero romps -- X-Men and X2 and even Superman Returns -- can't argue with his lack of effectiveness outside said genre. He's a nominal name at best, a minimal journeyman disguised as an auteur and given over to fits of cinematic delusion. Singer seems to think he understands the epic and the visually stunning, but he's a mostly medium shot savant. He can't quite instill his frame with anything remotely resembling power and presence, and when it comes to crafting character, he lets his cast do most of the talking. Indeed, Singer is not an actor's director, or a celluloid visionary. He's a competent craftsman who occasionally gets in over his head. On the positive side, he doesn't completely destroy Valkyrie. In fact, there are times when he shows some intriguing promise. Unfortunately, the film shouts for the hand of someone more capable.
At least the talent up on the screen lends credence to the film's entertainment value. If you don't mind watching excellent performances placed inside an often inert setting, Valkyrie will offer a quintessential quality experience. It's not going to change the world, or redefine cinema, but it definitely steps up and keeps you interested. Cruise is especially fascinating as Von Stauffenberg. Of course, there will be quibbles with his lack of accent (more on this in a moment) and the more matinee idol element to his performance, but you can't deny the drive and determination in his character. We see it during an opening battle in the African theater, with his resolve to end Hitler's reign -- even in his need to protect his family. Von Stauffenberg may be the most incongruous of heroes, well-meaning and wholly misguided, but at least he plans things down to the tiniest, most telling detail. Equally effective are the British thespians hired to play his conspirators. Nighy gets the less showy role, Olbricht's last minute cowardice essentially costing the cabal their chance. Wilkinson is wild eyed yet contemplative as the man torn between country and his convictions, and elsewhere, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hollander, and comedian Eddie Izzard shine as various pieces in the puzzle.
Again, people will complain about the lack of German language here, and this critic thinks it is a silly nitpick. Unless you are going for a Passion of the Christ style authenticity and have everyone speak the mother tongue, taking the leap to have the characters initially think in one language, only to have it casually switch over the English (and the varying types of inherent brogues) works. Similarly, there is way too much authentic and real fact here to whine over subtle changes in the story. Many in the audience won't have The History Channel on mental speed dial, and if they do, they already know this tale all too well. Also, it's important to note that the movie really clicks for most of its initial hour. We buy into the plan, watch as Cruise and his cohorts plot and re-plot its every variable, wait with anticipation for the proposed bombing to be pulled off, and enjoy the narrative denouement when it looks like Von Stauffenberg's coup might work. But then, after the all-important explosion, the movie gets talky. It gets larded with coincidence and truth life contrivances. In fact, we are led to believe that a single decision by a low ranking communications officer turned the entire plot against the dissenters.
It's not rare when a film starts out smart and sputters toward the end. It's no anomaly that Bryan Singer seems to be, once more, out of his league both intellectually and artistically (just ask Superman fans). It shouldn't come as a surprise that Tom Cruise and the rest of the cast can hold the screen with a kind of mainstream magnetism. All of them have proven their mantle in one major motion picture after another. Perhaps this is why Valkyrie feels so schizophrenic, and why the viewer is often compelled to work twice as hard to get the same kind of enjoyment they would derive from a similarly styled film. It's not bad, by any far stretch of the imagination, and we do find ourselves caught up, almost by rote, in the high stakes intrigue on display. With excellent acting work and a subtle dose of suspense here and there, we do spend time sweating the conclusion. But the best thrillers -- even one's based in real life -- have you questioning and panicking over the outcome even when you know the results outright. Valkyrie never once elevates its game beyond the step by step rise and fall of this idea. It should have been epic. Instead, it's just acceptable.
Fox favored DVD Verdict with a screener copy of the title, so information on final tech specs is specious at the very least. The 2.35:1 image presented here was terrible, frankly, full of pixilation and compression issues. The burned-in studio logo didn't help during proposed action scenes, and the overall look Singer and his cinematographer were going for (color photorealism, lets say) is complete lacking in this preview version. Better was the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. It offers excellent ambience, easily understandable dialogue, and a musical score by John Ottman (another Singer favorite) that really puts on the pomp.
As for added content, there are two different versions of Valkyrie headed to the format. The two-disc package is nothing more than the single DVD presentation with that new consumer con standby -- the digital copy. Ooooohhhhh! Aaaaahhhh! As for the rest of the bonus features, there are two very smart and quite essential commentaries. The first features Cruise, Singer, and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The second offers McQuarrie and his collaborator, co-writer Nathan Alexander. Both offer a dense dissection of the film, from what was authentic to the true story to the actual furniture recreated for the pivotal bombing sequence. Praise is heaped where necessary, and Singer defends Cruise and his other acting choices. Together, it's a wonderful behind the scenes look at what the minds behind the movie were thinking. Elsewhere, there is a nice making-of, and a full length documentary called The Valkyrie Legacy. Both fill in more details of the attempted coup, and carry across the message of Germany's mixed feelings over their supposedly beloved leadership.
Does it surprise you then to learn of a substantive political and mercantile cabal aimed at taking Germany away from Adolph Hitler and putting it in the hands of the military, a move that would hopefully save lives, maintain the country's sovereign sanctity, and halt the horrific destruction of human beings under the Nazis' notorious "Final Solution" (yes, the Holocaust gets some much needed lip service here)? Would it also shock you to see just how close they came to succeeding? If so, then Valkyrie will fire your imagination and stir your historical recreationist soul. But there are problems here, issues that could have been fixed had, perhaps, another creative team taken over the reigns of this project. Tom Cruise has nothing to be ashamed of, and his fellow cast mates craft a believable and plausible thriller circumstance. How it made it onto film however turns Valkyrie from a winner to something a little less triumphant. It works, just not as well as you'll want it to.
Not Guilty -- but just barely. This is a film whose flaws almost undermine its effectiveness.
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Bottom 100 Discs: #10
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Digital Copy
* Official Site