Movie Review: Philip Kennicott on 'Valkyrie'

Tom Cruise stars in this World War II thriller about a German officer who joins in a plot to destroy Hitler. Video by United Artists/MGM
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

Expectations for "Valkyrie," Tom Cruise's history-based thriller about the July 20, 1944, attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, were low. The subject matter couldn't be more serious, and Cruise's career hasn't exactly been a steadily accumulation of gravitas. Gone but not forgotten are the days of Oprah couch-jumping and Matt Lauer tongue-lashing. And his professed faith in Scientology makes him a lightning rod, especially in Germany, where "Valkyrie" was filmed and is the subject of considerable controversy. 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. Against all expectations -- and much to the relief of MGM, where Cruise is now a boss of United Artists -- he has fashioned a successful if not exceptional film. Directed by Bryan Singer, "Valkyrie" is a brutally efficient bit of storytelling, and it makes no unforced errors. Visually, it is tightly controlled to the point of claustrophobia, a grim study in battleship gray and the dreary palette of fascism. It is admirably free of any Spielbergian effort to squeeze sentimentality or inspirational lessons out of what is a complicated and morally complex story.

With fine performances from Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy and Terrence Stamp, it is a well-cast ensemble piece. And even Cruise, whom many doubted could carry off the aristocratic elan of the blue-blooded von Stauffenberg, manages his part respectably, with a combination of ramrod posture, starched costumes and minimalist acting.

So why isn't it possible to be more enthusiastic about this film? Why does it feel as if something sinister is lurking beneath its polished surface?

Screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander seem to have followed the account of the plot as laid out in William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," with only minimal changes and some understandable condensation. Von Stauffenberg, a fast-rising golden boy of the German army, is introduced at the moment he is wounded in North Africa. He overcomes the loss of an arm, two fingers and one eye, and continues his ascent in military circles. But his disillusionment with Hitler, and Hitler's disastrous two-front war, leads him to join -- and quickly take leadership of -- one of the more determined circles of anti-Hitler conspirators.

The history is mostly accurate, but not complete. And that is part of the problem.

The most disturbing loss is any sense of von Stauffenberg's life before the movie opens. He was the hero of the assassination plot, but he was not a committed anti-Nazi until very late in the game. Many anti-Hitler conspirators weren't so much against Nazism, with its vile racial and militarist policies, as they were against Hitler's disastrous leadership of the war. 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.

Most of that is left out of the film. As is any clear sense of how late in the war the plot came. Although there is a scene early in the film in which von Stauffenberg's family takes refuge in an air-raid shelter, there's little evidence of the pragmatic (and self-serving) motivation of many of the conspirators. Germany was in danger of imminent collapse, and they hoped to avoid the humiliation of invasion and occupation.

Even more problematic than the loss of historical context is the weird lack of humanity in the film. Machines rule in this tremendously mechanistic film. Planes, cars, telephones, teletypes, ticker tapes and guns create a weird cacophony of mechanical sounds. Voices, sometimes even at critical moments of dialogue, are occasionally inaudible against the howling background of machine-generated noise. Like the machines it focuses on so intently, the film is rigorous and relentless, with very little human in it. Two tears trickle down two checks, which is about the sum total of emotional display, other than the usual staples of military life: frustration, anger, determination, courage.

What's going on here? On one level, the film shows a dark truth of the plot: It was a military plot, generated within military circles, which is to say that it was fueled by many of the same forces that Hitler had harnessed to become Führer. Cruise's von Stauffenberg is not so much the aristocratic, Catholic, educated Stauffenberg of German legend; he is, rather, a German military man of the old school, a human machine, affectless beyond his passion for the mission.

But perhaps there's something else. The name "Valkyrie" refers to a set of preexisting plans to use the army to quell rebellion, which the plotters tailored and attempted to use for their own ends. It was borrowed from German literature and, more immediately, from Richard Wagner, who used it as the title of one of his operas. And it is in "Die Walküre" that Wotan, a god with an eye patch, appears.

"Valkyrie" the movie makes much of von Stauffenberg's missing eye and of the eye patch. Is there a not-so-subtle reference to Wotan here? Wotan was the last of the old gods, and the one whose behind-the-scenes scheming precipitates the downfall of the old order. And so Cruise as von Stauffenberg is a Wotan figure, and the film, with its almost futurist celebration of man as a mechanical animal, celebrates the disciplined, determined, even-tempered man.

A man who is struggling to take down the old order. It's hard to know whether this film is channeling Nietzsche or L. Ron Hubbard. Those who harbor dark fears of Scientology may want to watch the details closely: Does the film downplay von Stauffenberg's Christianity or acknowledge it in passing? Does it equate the conspirators with some kind of secret order with cultlike tendencies?

Or is all of that entirely too much to read into a Tom Cruise film? "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 about Tom 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 about Tom Cruise, even as he rises to the top once again.

Valkyrie (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and strong language.

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