Valkyrie – Movie Review
Tom Cruise has failed to kill Hitler. Only in American cinema would this ever be deemed a good thing.
With the kind of star power attached to Valkyrie, it would not have been surprising to see Tom Cruise swept up in an epic love story which only reluctantly addressed the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Adolph Hitler. Would anyone have been shocked to see the film take liberties with the actual story, using the man from Mission Impossible to literally do the impossible and succeed in his daring plot to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime? Hard experience has taught us that Hollywood is unparalleled in its ability to bungle even the most compelling -and true- stories. But Valkyrie is different.
Centered around a cabal of conspirators dedicated to removing Hitler and his regime and restoring dignity and honor to the German nation, the 75 million dollar Valkyrie examines how far these men and women went in conducting a tantalizingly close assassination attempt. Directed by Bryan Singer (Usual Suspects, X-Men) and starring Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible, War of the Worlds, A Few Good Men), the film re-introduces the world to one of the unsung heroes from the very heart of Nazi Germany – Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Colonel Stauffenberg was one of the few men who stood up to Hitler and attempted to save the lives of millions by killing just one. Had he succeeded, the entire history of the world might be very different …
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Viewers expecting constant action, flashy special effects, or lengthy dialogue will be disappointed. This film moves slowly and deliberately through most of its runtime and is remarkably understated given its huge budget. Most of the film is spent carefully assembling pieces of a puzzle. The men and women of the conspiracy came from a wide range of government and military positions, each providing a key piece of the machinery necessary both to kill Hitler and create a more benevolent form of government once he was terminated. As the film illustrates, killing Hitler in and of itself was not enough. There were safeguards in place to continue his policies even if he was killed, and failure to address those safeguards could have resulted in a leadership even MORE destructive than Hitler’s.
The film does a wonderful job of steering clear of contrived political speeches by the conspirators. Hitler is an assumed evil in the movie and the audience isn’t insulted with lectures explaining why. Many of the plotters come into the story clearly troubled by the direction Hitler has taken their nation and acceptance into this exclusive club is indication enough they are willing to die to remove him and all that he stands for. In one powerful scene, all the conspirators arrive in the same office holding up their "tokens" to Stauffenberg indicating their commitment to what was about to happen. It was a much more dramatic statement about the nature of good versus evil than any long-winded speech.
The film opens with German dialogue and quickly segues into non-accented English for all the characters throughout the movie. While some may find this to be too much of a concession to historical accuracy, it is probably fair to say the film becomes much more accessible. It is certainly more enjoyable to watch without subtitles or fake accents. The acting is even throughout, and the ever-expanding repertoire of Germanic character names is counter-balanced by having many recognizable actors. Kenneth Branagh is especially convincing in his own attempt to kill Hitler as is Tom Wilkinson in his role as the general in charge of the German Reserve Army who could have gone either way when the chips started falling. The man playing Adolph Hitler (David Bamber) gives the dictator an indescribable air of malignancy coupled with fragility that is very well done for the brief periods he is on screen.
Tom Cruise also does a decent job portraying Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg with the material he was given. With his eye patch and CGI-removed hand and fingers Cruise was unable to give his character the type of animation and passion you find in his previous roles. Additionally, his back story is not well developed and all we really know about him is that he was injured in North Africa and wants to kill Hitler. These things taken together make it difficult to connect with Stauffenberg and fully appreciate his motivations. The closest we come to seeing behind the eye patch is during his short interaction with his wife and family and a brief scene where his co-conspirator is shot in front of him.
From the eye of a historian the film gives a good snapshot into the lives and fates of those who attempted to take out Adolph Hitler. The writers stayed on mission, delivering a film that doesn’t stray into superfluous love stories or non-historical happy endings. Seeing the plot develop on the big screen and seeing how many pieces had to fall into place to make it a success gives the viewer an appreciation for the monumental scale of the plan. This alone makes the film worth seeing. However, be warned it is dark in tone and extremely serious end to end. With almost no levity to break up the tension, this may be a tough sell in a holiday season for those seeking something with a bit more cheer.
Still, Valkyrie proves that even in the darkest of times there are good men willing to risk everything to ensure the light will return. Being reminded of the sacrifice of Colonel von Stauffenberg and his friends during our own troubled times may inspire other subjugated peoples to dare to hope. Perhaps that is the true spirit of the holidays after all.
To read more about the historic Colonel von Stauffenberg and the effect his actions had on his family, see Claus von Stauffenberg – The Man Who Tried to Kill Hitler.