In X- Men, Bryan Singer brought more artistry to the depiction of the Third Reich's crimes against humanity than he does in Valkyrie, which depicts the heroic attempts of a handful of German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler and thus bring down the Nazi regime.
The concentration-camp prologue to X-Men grounded the movie's premise that a new Holocaust could be catalyzed against mutants. The prologue to Valkyrie fails to do the same for Tom Cruise's Col. Claus von Stauffenberg.
We do hear him reading a letter saying all the right things, especially, "There is widespread disgust in the officer corps toward the crimes committed by the Nazis: the murder of civilians, the torture and mass execution of Jews." But a scene of North African combat quickly overshadows that static prelude. American fighter pilots strafe von Stauffenberg's Panzer division and leave him with one eye and two fingers on his left hand.
The sequence reflects the horror of all wars, not just Hitler's.
From the start, Cruise gives a game physical performance as von Stauffenberg. Few actors could do better at depicting getting all shot up and mutilated. Yet Singer doesn't come through for Cruise and von Stauffenberg the way he did for Ian McKellen and Magneto in X-Men. The German officer's moment of conscience occurs off-screen, and the screenwriters, Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, apparently paralyzed by the seriousness of their subject, scant the sidelong ironies of a military aristocrat fashioning highest treason for the greater good.
Singer and McQuarrie were wise not to replicate the modernist chic of their terrific 1995 thriller The Usual Suspects, but they could have learned from films like Costa-Gavras' Z how to make historical drama sober and sizzling. The 2001 HBO historical film Conspiracy, which re-created the crafting of the Final Solution during the Swansee Conference, had more tension than Valkyrie, though it had even more scenes of men with cramped or furrowed brows sitting around boardroom tables. Valkyrie lacks the coherence to make the unfolding of a hideous foregone conclusion (of course, we know the Hitler-killing will be foiled) lucid or magnetic.
Kenneth Branagh won an Emmy for his brilliant portrayal of Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy, but Valkyrie wastes him and several other first-rate British talents (Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard) in its muddled portrait of a conspiracy of the just and not-so-just. Not even the dynamism of Terence Stamp can cut through the cloud of mind-fogging disagreements between the military and political wings of the anti-Fuhrer strategists and tacticians.
The movie is named for "Operation Valkyrie," originally devised in 1943 to have Germany's Reserve Army (a rough equivalent of our National Guard) safeguard the workings of the Nazi state in case of a surprise enemy paratroop assault or internal rebellion. Von Stauffenberg's stroke of near-genius was to redesign the operation so that Hitler's assassination would set it off. (Ancillary units were always on his mind: Historian Roger Moorhouse, in Killing Hitler, reports the real von Stauffenberg thought it was especially stupid as well as vile to torture Soviet citizens when the Reich's stated goal was "to raise volunteer units among them.") Once von Stauffenberg ignites the Valkyrie plan, the movie fitfully splutters to life.
As the slippery head of the Reserve Army, General Fromm - who neither condones nor resists von Stauffenberg's plot - Tom Wilkinson summons impressive inner reserves of gravity and wit. He involves us in the plight of a military shark who, for a while, must stop and tread water. Valkyrie's political and military subjects may have sounded like sure-fire thriller material. Wilkinson alone proves that a suspense film thrives on intriguing characters struggling to survive. Nothing in Valkyrie is as compelling as watching tides of calculation crash across Wilkinson's face.
(MGM) Starring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy. Directed by Bryan Singer. Rated PG-13 for violence and some strong language. Time 121 minutes.