CAPSULE: VALKYRIE is the story of Claus von Stauffenberg and his attempt in World War II to save Germany by murdering Adolf Hitler during a meeting at the Wolf's Lair. How good can one expect to be a film about Stauffenberg starring Tom Cruise and directed by Bryan Singer who is best known for writing and directing superhero films. Well, actually quite good. This is a nice tense political thriller that sticks fairly closely to history. Cruise is not a bad match for Stauffenberg. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Spoiler warning: Those who forget history may find spoilers herein. Those who never knew it may likewise.
I think that most people who know much about the history of World War II knew that Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was a hero. And there are even memorials to him and his fellow conspirators in today's Germany. They are, in fact, the only World War II veterans to whom there are memorials in Germany. But his story has not been one that filmmakers have wanted to put into film. He was at once treacherous and noble. He tried to murder his leader Adolf Hitler. Treachery in a humane cause can be a noble thing. And any American ten-year-old I hope would be able to tell you that Stauffenberg must have failed because a bombing at Wolf's Lair is not how Hitler died. So obviously the story of Stauffenberg is a story of failure. And the outcome has to be a real downer, the producers must have realized. The producers had a job to do to make this film a popular one.
Even more surprising is the casting of Tom Cruise. Cruise's pretty-boy looks and action hero roles have done a lot for him, but now they are working against him. But Stauffenberg himself did have boyish good looks and Cruise's interpretation of Stauffenberg is not inaccurate.
The story should be familiar from history. Claus von Stauffenberg determines that Adolf Hitler is leading Germany to destruction. The film (and history) are a little unclear on Stauffenberg's exact motives. Hitler really was destroying Germany, and Germany was going to suffer for his terrible leadership. Mentioned also is Stauffenberg's indignation at the inhumane offenses being perpetrated by Germany. One set of motives is practical and selfish, the other motivation is on a higher level. In any case, Stauffenberg determines that action must be taken to remove Hitler from power. This was in a society where disloyalty was a capital crime.
Early on the film Stauffenberg seems a little too open about his opinions, but loses some of his over-confidence when his heroics get him badly maimed and nearly killed in a battle in Tunisia. Returning to Germany he continues his campaign to remove Hitler, though a little more discreetly than he did in the field. He finds others willing to join the plot against Hitler. In fact, one apparent expedient of the script is that he finds like-minded people just a little too easily. He seems all too ready to put his life into other people's hands. This is obviously a very dangerous practice and Stauffenberg had to survive many times putting his safety and fate into the hands of strangers. It seems from the dramatization that to varying degrees just about anybody he takes into his confidence is willing to some degree or other to cooperate, even if it is just willingness to omit reporting treasonous conversations. In Hitler's Germany that could not have been easy to do. But the plan progresses to the assassination attempt and its tense aftermath.
Scriptwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander have done a surprisingly good job. Too frequently, films called "political thrillers" turn out to be mostly gunfights and car chases. Yes, there is one battle scene and one short gunfight, but for the most part the tension comes from the dialog and the plot. Words are traded, but rarely bullets. The style is much like my personal favorite political thriller, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. Both films are driven by good dialog and each deals with a military hero attempting to take the reins of government in a coup d'etat. But of course the attempt here is seen from just the opposite point of view. This film is shot with subdued lighting and filters. Frequently the camera is placed just chest-high on the actors to make them seem a little larger than life. In spite of the English- speaking actors, it seems to have the feel of the period.
It is rather ironic that the producers are making a story of a man who failed and in a good cause brought about disaster on his co- conspirators because though he was merely a bomber and not a suicide bomber. Had he remained to make sure the bomb killed Hitler, history would have been quite different. Had he been willing to die in the effort, he might actually have been a success. This is a high-tension thriller that that survives the fact that much of the audience knows how everything turns out. I rate VALKYRIE high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Side-note: It is fascinating to speculate how the world might have been different had the plot had succeeded. Had Germany sued for peace in July or August, 1944, the Soviets would have had much less of a foothold in Eastern Europe. That part of Europe would have much more like Western Europe. Germany would have escaped a great deal of the destruction that came in the remainder of the war. Rebuilding Germany would not have been as necessary. The country would not have the modern atmosphere that it does today and might be a good deal less forward-looking. After August the Pacific War would have gone a lot faster, having the full wartime resources of the United States. This would have brought American troops to the shores of Japan before the nuclear weapon was ready. The only other alternative would probably have been the invasion of Japan. The Japanese were ferocious fighters on the small islands of the Pacific they would have been really terrifying defenders of their homeland, trained to die rather than lost honor by surrendering. The cost in lives might easily have been over a million with each side taking very large hits. The Allies had greater access to resources so Japan probably would have eventually lost, but it is unclear what would have been left of their country when they did. This would have left lasting hatred on both sides. The resulting future of nuclear weapons is very unclear. Word would have eventually gotten out that it had been a success. It might have been used on Japan eventually anyway. And it probably would have leaked to the Soviet Union in much the way that it did. This is all just speculation but Germany, Japan, and the United States might all have been considerably worse off in the remainder of the 20th Century. [I thank alternate history expert Evelyn Leeper for some of the ideas in this paragraph.]
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0985699/
What others say: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/valkyrie/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper