Yeah, but that’s Tom Cruise up there.
In “Valkyrie,” one of history’s most famous assassination attempts is celebrity-ized, thus diverting it from its intended impact. The film is continually running its story, in all of its strategies, tactics and anxieties, its heroism, fright and courageous individuals, with its brakes on. For although Tom Cruise performs dutifully, he is without the full subtlety of unique personality force required. And since he is critically deficient in conveying this brave man’s inner force — he’s much more Cruise than Stauffenberg — our attention, again and again, regresses to the actor, not the character. Tom’s not projecting on this one, just being the actor.
Still, in its overall motif, the film is charged well in the apprehensions that riddle the German officers in the conspiracy. The stakes, the horrendous penalties for failure, and the essential motivations that drove these men to what would arguably be termed treason, is at times mesmerizing. Give it a good grade just for that.
Unfortunately, it is weak in its portrayal of the charismatic Hitler (David Bamber) who, at this point is in a debilitated condition because of severe physical problems but still in possession of his persuasive talents. For students of the phenomenon of Hitler — he’s without that renowned charisma that, by force of personal energy, crushed every attempted move against him.
Other ineffectual portrayals are of Luftwaffe chief and Hitler’s second-in-command Hermann Goering, and of the diabolical Josef Goebbels, the propaganda minister. The full extent of Hitler’s retribution after the failed assassination is not mentioned, the figure being in fact some 7,000 arrests and thousands of executions.
The portrayals of the other conspirator military officers, however, are excellent, although you may feel a bit disconcerted by the British accents.
The historical perspective: Adolf Hitler, following his blitzkrieg victories over Poland in 1939, then France in 1940, then a dominating area of Soviet Russia by mid-1942, was finally stopped by the Russians in the bloody Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of ’42-’43. In the West, the Americans, British and Canadians first landed in Sicily in July, ’43. By then, the Russians were advancing and throwing back the German armies over a 600-mile front.
For some time, high German military and Nazi government officials had been attempting an assassination of Hitler as they became more and more aware of the demonic dictator’s lunacy in the mass murder of the Jews and that, militarily, after the Allies’ D-Day landing, a catastrophic defeat in the war was imminent.
The conspirators hoped now to use the Berlin Reserve army, originally set up by Hitler to take control of Berlin in an emergency in an operation called Valkyrie, then establish an immediate surrender and peace agreement with the Allies.
But failed bomb plots (14 of them) and human frailty had plagued the conspirators. The dreaded Gestapo, under Heinrich Himmler, was well aware of the underground of conspiracy and was inexorably closing in. (War buffs have raised questions as to why Himmler delayed action. There are actually two answers:
1) Himmler himself was, in later research, discovered to have been sympathetic, he being desirous of taking over upon Hitler’s death.
And, 2) even ardent Gestapo agents were aware that allowing the plot to continue would bring them full knowledge of all the participants.)
What’re Valkyries? Valkyries, for those curious, were women in Norse mythological who directed brave men into battle then determined which of the dead (“Valkyrie” means “chooser of the slain”) was heroic enough to enter into a special heaven called Valhalla. They were glorified in the operas of Richard Wagner.
The story on screen tells of the best planned and widely backed of the assassination attempts, resulting in the failure of the Bomb Plot of July 20, 1944. The search for a lead man to carry the bomb had centered upon the handsome 36-year-old Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a refined German art-loving army officer of aristocratic ancestry who had become prominent in the German Resistance movement. Although he had been an officer in the German invasion of Poland, he nurtured strong misgivings over the way the Nazis (he was not a Nazi party member) cruelly treated the people of the occupied territories.
While serving in the Afrika Korps, Stauffenberg was almost killed by a British strafing attack in which he lost his left eye, his right hand and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand.
By 1944, the fifth year of the war, Stauffenberg was Chief of Staff of the Army Reserve. Hitler, himself fully aware of “lunatics who would kill me,” craftily moved his headquarters from Berlin to the Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair) near Rastenburg in East Prussia.
Stauffenberg was the only officer who could do this killing, he being known to and trusted by Hitler and a decorated war hero.
The film holds accurately to these details as Stauffenberg, his insurrection desires more and more known in high military circles, is introduced to oldline aristocratic officers who’d had contempt for Hitler’s raging style and unprofessional military attitudes and strategies in the first place.
Among these are Gen. Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp) whom Hitler had dismissed from command over tumultuous disagreements, Major-Gen. Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) who’d already attempted to kill Hitler, Gen. Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) who’s been another oldtime resistance conspirator, Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) who will engineer the necessary communications in the new plot at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair, and the shakiest of the conspirators, Gen. Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) who’s now commander in chief of the reserve army in Berlin, who, now in the “Valkyrie” operation, is supposed to order it into action upon being notified that Hitler is dead.
With utmost, meticulous planning, the conspirators, comprised of any high German officers, equipped their assassin with a time bomb in a briefcase. He would take it into a conference Hitler was holding at Wolfschanze, place it under the table next to Hitler, then excuse himself for a phone call.
All went well and according to plan, right up to the exit of Staffenberg from the room leaving the bomb briefcase in place.
But then . . .
“Valkyrie” (quality rating: 7 out of 10)
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Nathan Alexander, based on the true story
Cast: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, David Bamber, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten
Time: 2 hrs.
Rating: PG-13 (violence, brief vulgarity)
30-year former films critic for the Portland (Maine) Sunday Telegram. Offering right-to-the-point reviews that address directly the question of the film’s entertainment value to you. Films have personalities. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, who directs it, who stars in it, if it doesn’t reach out to you with charisma. I examine its honesty and intelligence. Are you being respected, or are you being jerked around?