While there are a zillion World War II movies out there already, I kept an open mind going into the Tom Cruise star vehicle Valkyrie. Sure, this is a movie that has been dogged by bad press from start to finish (even due, in part, to the fact that Cruise is a Scientologist) but I can see that there is a fascinating movie to be made out of a German resistance movement involving Nazi officers in Adolf Hitler's inner circle.
High-ranking, aristocratic officers attempting to assassinate Hitler? There's so much to explore here! Were these men heroes? Or was it a desperate and calculated power grab when it was clear the Germans were losing the war? What did these men know about the mass murders of Jews that had taken place and when did they know it? Did any of them, including Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) who led one of the most daring plots to kill Hitler, have a genuine crisis of conscience? And if so, what does that kind of moral awakening look like?
In a war that is often depicted very starkly as good vs. evil, within the German rank and file there were shades of gray and this makes for interesting psychological thriller fodder for sure. So why did Cruise and director Bryan Singer forego that kind of film in favor of a totally reductive, shallow, glossy, big-budget flick that will leave you feeling underwhelmed and a little icky because you just spent over an hour rooting for Nazis? I really don't know, but let's talk about it. Just read more.
First of all, I'm a little baffled at how little characterization exists in this movie. We are asked to very simply and easily accept these men as heroes and root for them when they are Nazis, for Pete's sake. Just trying to kill Hitler and place yourself and your pals into power isn't quite enough to make us care. And at times it's hard to root for people you know are going to fail because — spoiler alert? — Hitler survives the assassination attempt and World War II continues on.
The whole experience is confusing to say the least. For example, in the opening scene we see Cruise on the ground in Africa fighting on behalf of Hitler's Germany when the "enemy" (that would be the Allied forces fighting to stop Hitler from totally destroying Europe) airplanes zoom in to launch an air strike and bodies go flying everywhere. Instinctively my sympathy went toward the soldiers on the ground, but then. . . aren't these Nazis? Who am I rooting for here? And why?
My fundamental issues with the filmmakers' approach aside, the real question is: Is it entertaining popcorn cinema? And in my opinion the answer is no, not really. It's not the laugh-riot some thought it might be (Cruise, Nazis, eye-patch, ya know) thanks in part to a solid cast that props the movie up, including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Eddie Izzard. It's not a very satisfying experience that fails to keep viewers on the edges of their seats, save the moment when Cruise's character attempts to plant a bomb quite literally under Hitler's feet. There's also a nicely executed political coup late in the movie that is captivating to watch — an example of the potential this movie had.
Finally, at the center of this wannabe-blockbuster is one of the most self-conscious performances of Cruise's career in which he takes all that burning intensity he so often brings to the silver screen and buries it away. I've read that part of Stauffenberg's heroism was his ability to recruit others to his cause based on sheer charisma and charm. Never would have guessed that from this portrayal.
Photos courtesy of MGM