Spoiler Alert: Tom Cruise’s Col. Claus von Stauffenberg of Germany’s Tenth Panzer Division does not kill Adolf Hitler in Valkyrie. Although director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander devote the film’s plot to dramatizing von Stauffenberg’s historically correct plan, they get no deeper than telling audiences what they already know. Singer’s approach to history is as trivial and incompetent was as his fantasy process in The Usual Suspects and the X-Men movies. Not only is Singer’s filmmaking aesthetically frustrating (lacking coherent visual rhythm) but his juvenile regard of the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Hitler—one of 15 documented attempts—is intellectually insulting.
Von Stauffenberg’s legend (participating in the little-known German Resistance during WWII) deserves better than Singer’s fanboy enthusiasm. But Valkyrie is what we get after the culture capitulated to Singer’s neo-noir, sci-fi nonsense—our standards have sunk. Torn between duty to his country and allegiance to his personal moral code in the face of the Third Reich’s dehumanizing measures, Von Stauffenberg’s moral turmoil demands an intelligent interpretation. Singer’s previous Holocaust movie Apt Pupil offered trashy, homoerotic paranoia in place of a mature sense of life and politics. Here, Singer’s team traps Tom Cruise in a poorly devised superhero schematic.
When von Stauffenberg performs the “heil Hitler” salute with a missing hand (after a battle injury), the poignant detail suggests that Cruise needed his former in-house screenwriter Robert Towne to convey von Stauffenberg’s Chinatown-like dilemma of social terror, political absurdity and personal compulsion. A desperate man of principal, von Stauffenberg attempts a political coup, partly to redeem honor from the Nazis’ distortion of German heritage. (Thus, Operation Valkyrie, named after Wagner’s Gotterdammerung: “Handmaidens of the gods choosing who will live and who will die”). But when Von Stauffenberg finds himself and his few allies (Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp) isolated and doomed, Singer merely shows them outnumbered—as if stumbling into a Nazi-themed Black Party.
Let’s be clear: Valkyrie’s failure is not Tom Cruise’s. His earnest performance should be as respected as Eastwood’s in Gran Torino, but he’s marooned by Singer’s blockbuster formula. After Cruise’s superbly challenging work in Minority Report, War of the Worlds and Lions for Lambs, there’s no doubt about his against-the-grain idealism. Von Stauffenberg’s insight (“These men are confusing respect with popularity”) speaks to our era. Valkyrie should have been both heroic and elegiac; but Singer shows no appreciation of serious spiritual commitment or moral tension (his onscreen time code reminds us he’s being suspenseful).
Reducing wartime resistance to the action genre over-simplifies Von Stauffenberg’s convictions. He declares, “Outrages committed by SS are a stain on the German army.” But baldly calling Hitler “the arch enemy of the entire world” is comic-book stuff—without the satirical vision of Verhoeven’s Black Book, whose star Carine von Houten plays von Stauffenberg’s wife. In this trivializing context, Von Stauffenberg’s faithful insistence, “I saw the blast!”—after initiating the plot to blow-up Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair compound—is nullified. Singer doesn’t support Cruise’s artistic faith. Valkyrie’s story of heroism becomes a bizarre, pessimistic sequel to Mission: Impossible.
Directed by Bryan Singer, Running Time: 120 min.
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