Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tom Cruise Takes On The Nazis Adequately In Valkyrie, A Good (Not Great) Film.

The Good: Great pacing, Interesting plot, Generally good acting
The Bad: Light on character, Obviously somewhat predictable.
The Basics: In Valkyrie, a group of German officers attempt to thwart the Nazis in a tight, but slightly above average film.

There's an irony to my take on Valkyrie, which is this: before I went into the screening of the film, I actually allowed myself to get excited about it because from all of the trailers, it looked like it wouldn't be a Holocaust downer movie. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Holocaust denier (I deny that the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews is the ONLY holocaust), but sometimes I'm in a mood for a Holocaust depressing movie and sometimes I'm in the mood to see a war movie, especially one where the Nazis get what's coming to them. I'm not so keen on mixing them sometimes. The irony here is that when I finished watching Valkyrie, my overwhelming thought was, "That movie would have worked a lot better if the characters had a reason - on screen - for what they were doing; they should have shown some of them having an epiphany at a concentration camp!" I suppose we can't have it all, but with Valkyrie, concentration camps are mentioned in passing and given how little emotional resonance most of the characters have, it would have been decent to see the motivation one of them actually had.

That said, Valkyrie is a surprisingly good film. It's good, not great, not the holiday knock-your-socks-off must-see movie, but it's good. In other words, it's not a Schindler's List or Glory, but it is decent and worth a viewing, if not quite a buy on DVD when it is eventually released. And right up top, I have to give kudos to whomever made the trailers for Valkyrie; I thought this would be yet another film where the trailer showed us everything (especially when over half the trailer's lines are in the first five minutes of the movie!) but there is a LOT of movie outside the trailer and it worked very well in that regard.

Stationed in Tunisia, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is a dissenter in the German military who concocts a withdrawal plan from Africa based upon a lack of water rations. Unfortunately, before the appropriate orders can be given, the Allies sweep into Tunisia and shoot up his Division. Stauffenberg loses an eye, a hand and fingers off his left hand. He also gets shipped back to Berlin as a result of his injuries. Once there, he is reunited with his wife and taken in by General Olbricht and Ludwig Beck, a high officer who now is more politically connected than connected to the military. Beck and Olbricht are part of the high echelon of military officers who refused promotion to get closer to Adolf Hitler's inner circle. They want to take Germany back from the people and away from the Nazis.

During a bombing of Berlin, Stauffenberg hatches a plan: rewriting one of Adolf Hitler's secret orders to put the civilian reserve army under Stauffenberg and other dissenter's control. Operation Valkyrie is an order that would mobilize Hitler's reserve army in the event of a coup and Stauffenberg and his associates hatch a plan: kill Hitler, frame the S.S., mobilize the reserve army under a sympathetic general and have them arrest the S.S. and turn control over to a new Chancellor who is part of their inner circle. The plan comes fraught with two essential dangers: Hitler has to sign the revised Valkyrie order, which Stauffenberg is suddenly promoted to a position to get, and Hitler has to be successfully assassinated and a sympathetic general has to head the reserve army in order for it to work. And as Beck notes, "Nothing ever goes according to plan . . ."

Valkyrie is, admittedly, much better than I thought it would be. Had I known it was by Bryan Singer, I don't think I would have doubted as much going in. Singer re-teams with writer Christopher McQuarrie, a team that made the genius The Usual Suspects. Together they tell and show a story that is remarkably well paced. Valkyrie is a two-hour film and I swear, it felt like an hour. It is a remarkably direct movie and it moves along at a very regular and quick pace. That works very well for the movie.

Some - on other places I've looked - seem to be criticizing the accents in Valkyrie and I think it's worth noting that McQuarrie and Singer manage to address that in a very clever fashion in the opening moments of the movie. There are - essentially - three types of movies that are historical and set in foreign nations: 1. Presented in the native language (usually subtitled), 2. "Assumed Translations" where everyone speaks in an accent that mimics as closely as they can that of the time and place in the language the audience understands (which requires all of the actors to use the same accent and is also most open to criticism), and 3. Assumed Native presentation where the characters are speaking in the language the audience understands, but the audience has to imagine that they are actually speaking in their native language. Valkyrie is presented as the third option and that is set up by the very opening where Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg opens in narrating in German and overlays with English until he is just speaking in English. This works perfectly; we get it. Cruise is not held to any sort of accent (nor is anyone else) because the character isn't speaking English, the character is speaking in German, it's just convenient that we, the audience, are hearing it in English. Any commentary on accents, then, is missing the point of the opening two minutes of the movie.

And Valkyrie is generally well-executed in terms of plot. The references to Schindler's List and Glory before were purposeful; we know where the plot is going and even without knowing the specifics of the historical July 20th Attempt, the audience has to know not to get too attached to any of the characters because, in the end, this is not how the war ended for Germany. What Valkyrie lacks that Glory and Schindler's List had, though, is the character elements to sustain our interest and make us care. Don't get me wrong, there are characters who pop up and as the movie progresses, the viewer thinks, "Man, it's too bad that guy's gonna die, I actually like him" but for the most part, the characters are flat and presented as monolithic as opposed to actually fleshed out.

Stauffenberg opens Valkyrie as a dissenter in the military, part of the African Offensive because of his views on how the war is being managed. How he came to this conclusion and why he was sent into quasi-exile as opposed to killed by the Reich, is never adequately explained. All of the officers presented are given a vague, nationalistic sense that they are acting to thwart the Nazis out of some concept that not all Germans are Nazis and they owe it to the people and the world to do what they can to stop Hitler and his plans for world domination. But not one of the characters has any sort of story that explains how they came to that point. Most problematic of these is Stauffenberg's adjutant, Werner von Haeften, who enters the film ready to commit high treason and is never given any explanation for his willingness to jump off this particular cliff.

Valkyrie is also hampered both by reality and its own subtext. In reality, some officials were Nazis, some weren't and the historical accuracy people would be up in arms if those who weren't helping Stauffenberg out did in the film or vice versa. For my part, I crack up when the movie opens with "This story is based upon historical events" and closes the credits with "any similarity between persons or situations, past or present is entirely coincidental." The problematic in Valkyrie is that some of the characters speak in subtext and for those of us looking for clandestine communications, two of them shine like a flare.

The first is when Major-General Henning von Tresckow's bottle bomb attempt on Hitler's life in the beginning goes awry, he recovers the bottle from an officer who suspects, but does not report the incident. That officer speaks in a way - specifically mentioning about the subversives (who he is in charge of rounding up) "You'd be surprised" who they are - that seems to indicate that under the right conditions, he'd be on the side of the dissenters, but he never comes over, making one wonder what the point of the subtext is. Even worse it the insinuations in regard to General Fromm. Fromm specifically says that he is a loyal officer so long as Hitler is alive and in power. When the operation begins, though, he is given the opportunity to join the rebels, but is arrested instead. If the producers ran into historical accuracy problems here, one wonders why they included the sympathizer subtext at all.

Even as the characters are flat, the acting is what I call "mediocre greatness." Director Bryan Singer stacks the deck with great casting, but most of the roles simply require the actors to walk around in German military outfits looking serious. They do this. This is, essentially, what I observed with Mystic River where a director assembles an amazing cast and then simply uses the cast within their expected levels of greatness based upon their known caliber of acting. In other words, there are few truly genius moments of acting in Valkyrie, it's mostly that a bunch of great actors show up.

So, for example, Kenneth Branagh shows up in the beginning of the movie and plays an officer who has his moment and Branagh is fine, but it's not one of his greatest performances of all time. Similarly, I expect greatness from Tom Wilkinson, who plays General Fromm. Wilkinson shows up, acts exactly as good as I would expect from him, but it's not an astonishing performance for him. The only primary actor who pushed the envelope of my expectations was Bill Nighy. Nighy plays General Olbricht and there is not a hint of humor in his performance. I don't think he smiles the entire film. Nighy is convincingly stern and there is a moment when Olbricht freezes up that Nighy is absolutely genius in his portrayal.

Tom Cruise is stiff as Stauffenberg, does not have any honest chemistry with on-screen wife Carice von Houten and does not surprise the viewer with his performance. Yes, it's average and expected Tom Cruise.

The one performance that blew me away, though was Eddie Izzard. Izzard is granted a bit role as a communications General at the Wolf's Hut (Hitler's private war council bunker) and anyone who has seen Dress To Kill will be astonished by how serious and intense Izzard can be. He may only have two or three scenes, but he steals them and illustrates he has some serious dramatic chops!

On DVD, Valkyrie appears with remarkably standard DVD bonus features. There is a commentary track wherein Cruise, McQuarrie and Singer all attempt to emphasize that Nazis were bad, but not all Germans were Nazis, so it's okay to root for the film's protagonists. As well, there is a historical documentary and a featurette on making the film. These are good enough to keep the film worth watching.

And in the end, Valkyrie is an engaging political espionage story that works. But it's not one of the year's best films that some have been holding out hoping it would be. Then again, if it gets you out of the house around the holidays . . .

For other works with Bill Nighy, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Love Actually


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Index Page!

© 2012, 2009, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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