‘Valkyrie’ offers action — but little more


Although inspired by history, the new Tom Cruise film “Valkyrie” is an action thriller that towards its end, tries, unconvincingly, to morph into historical drama.

Movies inspired by resistance within Nazi Germany have cropped up more frequently in recent years, notably the excellent Sophie Scholl. “Valkyrie” is inspired by, perhaps, the best-known of several assassination plots against Hitler, an effort that came late in the war from within the ranks of the German military.

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Tom Cruise plays a rising German army officer from an elite family, who has become disenchanted with the Nazis’ handling of the war and joins a plot to kill Hitler. Directed by Bryan Singer, whose other films include The Usual Suspects, and who happens to be Jewish, the film has come in for some criticism for using serious historic events as backdrop for what is basically just an action film.

The film opens in North Africa with Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) writing in a secret journal of his disgust with the Nazi’s handling of the war and their treatment of Jews, the film’s sole reference to the topic.

The scene occurs just before the handsome von Stauffenberg is disfigured by a bombing, which leaves him missing one hand, two fingers on the other hand and an eye, adding a personal reason for his dislike of Hitler.

He joins a long-running secret anti-Hitler group within Germany’s military establishment, led by a character played by Kenneth Branaugh. The plotters are high military and government officials who have never particularly been taken with Hitler’s ideology but continued to participate in the war, while plotting to assassinate the Fuhrer.

Von Stauffenberg gets involved following a failed assassination attempt that nearly exposes the conspirators. It is late in the war, the military men know it is lost, and the Allies are nearly on Germany’s doorstep. The conspirators hope to take control before an Allied invasion, and perhaps secure better terms. The coolly-controlled colonel takes charge of the next assassination effort, launching a suspenseful, ticking-clock action plot.

The pacing is taut and creates a surprising level of tension. The film features quick twists and ensemble acting, presented with muted emotions in sets dominated by grey tones and clacking machinery.

As an action movie, “Valkyrie” cranks out a driven, unsentimental plot that builds surprising levels of suspense. Tom Cruise does not spoil the movie, as many may fear, and those of us who often find Tom Cruise too ego-driven as an actor may be pleasantly surprised at his restrained performance.

Cruise plays a stoic von Stauffenberg with ramrod straight posture, creating a character that is as efficient as a military machine, with his emotions tightly controlled, even in scenes with his beloved family.

“Valkyrie” does offer a stellar supporting cast, including Branaugh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson and Eddie Izzard. It eschews the idea of German accents, with each actor simply speaking in his own accent, which works well enough, apart from giving a vague feeling that the British have already invaded.

In interviews, director Bryan Singer has talked about the sense of being surrounded by the ghosts of the war while filming in Berlin.

Both the director and his cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, the only Jews on the shooting crew, experienced strange sensations on location.

Singer’s film project started out as an idea for a smaller, independent film but grew with the involvement of Cruise in the production. However, it was with his casting of Tom Cruise as von Stauffenberg that Singer encountered problems while shooting in Germany, where the colonel is considered a national hero, due to Cruise’s belief in and German issues with Scientology.

“Valkyrie” might be faulted for using WWII Germany as a mere backdrop for a thriller but the film strays more into dubious terrain when it tries to recast von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators as noble resistance fighters, rather than career military men embarrassed by the mismanaged war and hoping to secure better terms with the eventual conquerors.

The conspirators felt that the Nazis had mismanaged the war and embarrassed the homeland, something that comes through clearly, and accurately, in the first half of the film.

For most of them, more a sense of national pride than moral outrage drove their actions. Moreover, the long drawn-out sequence of events after the assassination attempt bogs down the film’s momentum, as we see executions and brave, stern faces in its ineffective attempt to recast the conspirators as selfless freedom fighters.

“Valkyrie” offers thriller action, a nice ensemble cast, and a restrained, effective performance by Tom Cruise.

It is a good action film but little more, despite its historic setting. The film works as entertainment until the film bogs down after the plotters’ arrests.

For a meatier, more meaningful, still suspenseful film about real freedom fighters in the German resistance, Sophie Scholl remains the better example.