DVD Release Date:  May 19, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 25, 2008
Rating:  PG-13 (for violence and brief strong language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  120 min.
Director:  Bryan Singer
Actors:  Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp

Diligent students of World War II history know not every Nazi was a devoted Nazi.  Conspirators from deep within their ranks made a total 15 attempts—all unsuccessful—to kill Hitler.  Ultimately, the psychotic Fürher committed suicide as Russian troops advanced on the Reich Chancellery where he was hiding with his wife (whom he had married the day before), Eva Braun.  Hitler died after simultaneously shooting himself in the mouth and taking a cyanide capsule.

In Valkyrie, those who know that history and those who don’t will be treated to a surprisingly factual narrative about one of the most celebrated of those attempts.  The film feels more like a documentary than a feature, however, which is surprising given that director Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) has a penchant for the dramatic.  Singer tries to inject that here but ultimately, the script suffers from “talking heads” syndrome, with far too many people talking and doing very little.

Colonel Claus von Staffenberg (Tom Cruise) is an officer assigned to the 10th Panzer Division in Tunisia during WWII.  While standing outside his tent in the desert, Staffenberg is strafed by low-flying bombers from the Royal Air Force.  He is left for dead but survives.  His injuries are so extensive, however, that he loses his right hand, his left eye and three fingers of his left hand.

After his convalescence, Staffenberg meets Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh).  The film then flashes back to a previous assassination attempt by von Tresckow, who had tried to blow up Hitler’s plane with a bomb hidden in some French liqueur.  Stauffenberg joins the ranks of likeminded men, including Gen. Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy),  Gen. Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), Gen. Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp) and Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard).

Staffenberg receives a promotion, which puts him into an even bigger position of power. He convinces the other conspirators that their plans are doomed to fail again.  “And then what?” he says.  Essentially, it isn’t enough to just kill the Fürher.  You have to take control of his government as well.

Staffenberg lays out his proposal, which hinges around Hitler’s “Operation Valkyrie.”  Under this emergency plan, Hitler’s reserve army will be called up, if the regular army ever becomes incapacitated and communication is cut off .  Staffenberg wants to use Valkyrie to stage the coup that would take place after Hitler’s assassination. 

The plot goes into motion.  Staffenberg himself plants the bomb, which he places in a briefcase under a table where Hitler and his men are working.  Unfortunately, he is interrupted and is only able to activate one of the two explosives.  He then quickly leaves the building.

Staffenberg hears the explosion behind him and wrongly assumes that Hitler has been killed.  He unwittingly launches Operation Valkyrie.  But less than 24 hours later, it is he who is dead—along with another 200 people and 700 to 5,000 more (depending on who you ask) who were arrested in connection to the plot.  

Prior to its Christmas 2008 release—which was pushed back four times—Valkyrie was plagued with a host of problems that ranged from a lawsuit by injured extras to Cruise’s tabloid exploits.  It is the latter, of course, which dominated the headlines, placing Cruise in the unenviable position of trying to resurrect a flailing career and prove that he could churn out a blockbuster from his newly-purchased film studio, United Artists.  With Valkyrie, he manages to do both—but only to a degree. 

Cruise dominates the screen, but his performance isn’t particularly arresting.  He’s convincing but flat, with very little expression or personality bleeding through.  Some of this is due to the script, which offers little in the way of back story or character exposition.  Why, exactly, does Staffenberg want Hitler dead?  The film paints only broad strokes—a huge omission that would have provided excellent opportunity for Cruise to show some acting chops and for the director to give us a glimpse into the lifestyles of rich and famous Nazis.  This is all the more important given that the overwhelming majority of the film’s scenes take place around a desk.  It’s tedious, to say the least, with nothing more than a few quick shots of Staffenberg’s wife and children to break things up.

Another problem is the accents.  Most of the German officers speak with English accents, but one speaks with a German accent, which is distracting.  Cruise doesn’t even attempt an accent, however, and his American presences throws off the film’s credibility.  In short, he was the wrong actor for the role, which would have been better served by someone older and more versatile.

Valkyrie is mildly entertaining and will provide ample discussion opportunity about the ethics of assassinating evil dictators.  History buffs are the ones most likely to appreciate this best.

DVD EXTRAS:

  • None

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Actors drink and smoke throughout the film, typically in social or war contexts.
  • Language/Profanity:  A few strong profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  None.
  • Violence:  Strong wartime violence including shootings, gunfire and executions.