Expectations for "Valkyrie," Tom Cruise's history-based thriller about the July 20, 1944, attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, were low. Worst of all, though, was damning criticism from Berthold Schenk von Stauffenberg, son of the film's hero, Claus von Stauffenberg, who told Cruise to keep his grubby Hollywood mitts off dear old dad -- and go home.
Cruise did neither. And against all expectations he has fashioned a successful if not exceptional film. Cruise manages his part respectably, with a combination of ramrod posture, starched costumes and minimalist acting.
"Valkyrie" is a brutally efficient bit of storytelling, and it makes no unforced errors. It is admirably free of any Spielbergian effort to squeeze sentimentality or inspirational lessons out of what is a complicated and morally complex story.
Von Stauffenberg's disillusionment with Hitler, and Hitler's disastrous two-front war, leads him to quickly take leadership of one of the more determined circles of anti-Hitler conspirators. Von Stauffenberg was not only untroubled by Hitler's nationalism and early aggression, he helped further it as a loyal soldier. It was only later, when he learned more about the master he served with military punctiliousness, that he saw the light.
All of that is left out of the film.
Those who harbor dark fears of Scientology may want to watch the details closely: Does it play down von Stauffenberg's Christianity or acknowledge it in passing? Does it equate the conspirators with some kind of secret order?
"Valkyrie" is so austere, so strangely inhuman in its depiction of heroism, that you can't help but admire it as an entertainment juggernaut, and fret about it, too, for its celebration of a very limited ideal of human behavior. You'd have to believe the worst of Cruise and the makers of "Valkyrie" to believe that their film is an allegory for something darker. But then, we've grown used to thinking the worst of Tom Cruise, even as he rises to the top once again.
-- Philip Kennicott (Dec. 25, 2008)
Contains violence and strong language.