I went into Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie expecting the worst. The very notion of Tom Cruise as a Nazi officer gets no further than an eye-roll and an “Oh, brother” from me. And while Cruise isn’t especially good in the film, he’s not embarrassingly bad (“Long live sacred Germany!” aside), just terminally miscast. The film itself is an awkward mix of plodding history and general adequacy, with occasional flourishes of visual panache that seem to be from some other, more stylish movie. The shot where the camera starts to spin as it descends on the whirling gramophone record till it attains the same speed as the record, so that we can read the label—Die Walkure (The Valkyrie)—may be the single coolest thing I saw all year. If only the movie surrounding it were in the same league.
Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the historical character who more or less headed up a plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi government. The problem with casting Cruise is that he’s just so resolutely American that he feels like a little boy playing dress up. The decision to have him not affect an accent was probably better than having him do a Conrad Veidt impression while Nazi-lipping cigarettes, which would undoubtedly have gotten a terrific laugh. Of course, the largely Brit supporting cast of ersatz Germans don’t do accents either, but they at least sound foreign to American ears, making them stand out less. That they’re also better actors perhaps factors into this, too.
The truth is that Cruise isn’t the film’s biggest problem—the script by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and newcomer Nathan Alexander is. This is one of those situations where it’s hard to build up much in the way of suspense because the viewer knows from the onset that no one ever succeeded in killing Hitler. (If you don’t know that, I suppose I shouldn’t tell you that the Titanic sank either.) It’s to their—and Singer’s—credit that they get the limited suspense they do out of the concept. But considerably before the ending, it’s hard not to get impatient waiting for the other jackboot to drop, while the movie tries to squeeze every drop of good out of the “if only” aspect of it all. It hardly helps that the film is fuzzy as concerns the motivations behind the plot, which often seem to be largely grounded in the notion that getting rid of Hitler might increase the chances of the plotters not dangling from the end of a rope as war criminals after the war. In this regard, the 1943 propagandistic The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler seems more sincere, since it’s clear why the character wants Hitler dead.
Most of what holds Valkyrie together is the film’s supporting cast. Bill Nighy does most of the heavy lifting in the acting department, but he’s helped out a great deal by Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson. Actually, all the supporting players are good, though a few—like Eddie Izzard (“They will pull you apart like warm bread”) and Carice van Houten (Black Book)—are so underused that they almost might have stayed home. Still, it’s the amassed presence of the supporting cast that gives the film something like the epic gravitas on an acting level that it has on a production level.
In the end, Valkyrie is interesting as history, modest as entertainment, lacking in suspense and a lot less important than it would like to be taken for. Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language.