Hollywood and the people who brought you World War II have been making beautiful music together for decades, and “Valkyrie,” the new Tom Cruise vehicle, doesn’t disturb that melody.
The story of a real-life bomb plot against German leader Adolf Hitler’s life -- spearheaded by the patriotic aristocrat Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, played by Cruise -- “Valkyrie” is made with impeccable professionalism and, flying in the face of years of Internet hysteria, is a perfectly acceptable motion picture. The only thing that keeps it from even greater accomplishments may be inherent in the story itself.
Certainly the July 20, 1944, conspiracy against the Fuhrer is one of the more compelling narratives to come out of World War II, and, frankly, the less you know about it, the more likely you are to appreciate the film that screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander and director Bryan Singer have constructed around it.
Singer, best known for “The Usual Suspects” and the first two “X-Men” movies, is a purposeful, focused director, expert at keeping things moving at a brisk pace. There is a considerable amount of tension in “Valkyrie,” especially in its first half, when time is well spent detailing the careful plotting that went on before the attempt was made.
“Valkyrie” has also paid attention to the look of things, not stinting on bright red Nazi banners nor on the elaborate uniforms the German generals were partial to. To play those military men, the film stuck with tradition, recruiting a team of top British actors -- Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard -- but did things differently by letting everyone, including Cruise, speak with their natural accents.
It’s Cruise who’s the center of this film, and though his name doesn’t immediately come to mind when thinking of a German officer who’s lost fingers, a hand and an eye in combat, the fact that the colonel was likely the most charismatic man in any room, eye patch or not, is something the actor has been able to connect to.
Von Stauffenberg is met first in Tunisia, where he received all those injuries before returning to the homeland. Passionate enough about Germany to be in despair about Hitler’s leadership, he falls in with a band of civilian and military men who want to kill the leader, stage a coup and take over the government to “show the world that not all Germans are like Hitler.”
From this determination comes a plot to subvert Operation Valkyrie, Hitler’s plan to use Germany’s Reserve Army to protect the government in case of internal trouble. The conspirators’ idea was to, in fact, employ the plan to topple the government the Reserve Army had sworn to defend. Von Stauffenberg, soon named head of the Reserve Army, becomes the person charged with attempting to kill the Fuhrer with a pair of well-placed bombs.
If you know anything about history, you know that this plot did not succeed. So although the run-up to the attempt, helped by John Ottman’s editing and music, is quite involving, the second half of the film, with the conspirators in Berlin trying to put their plans into effect not knowing that Hitler’s survival has doomed them, does not hold our interest as well because we are aware, even if the rebels are not, how futile their actions are.
Failed plots, even failed plots in Nazi Germany, can make excellent movies, with 2005’s “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” being a case in point. But with the lion’s share of the attention here going to logistics, not emotions, “Valkyrie,” though always respectable, never rises to that level. Hitler’s staying alive was a terrible twist of history, and one that the world, as well as this film, just has to live with.
MPAA rating: PG-13 rating for violence and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In general release