Monday 3 August 2009

Valkyrie (2008)

Monday 3 August 2009
A WWII story Germans can watch without feeling national guilt, Bryan Singer swaps Superman for Übermensch to tell the fascinating tale behind the infamous fifteenth attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is an anti-Nazi German officer injured in Tunisia, 1944 -- losing a hand, some fingers and his left eye -- who returns to Berlin and becomes part of an underground clique of top brass who believe the best thing for "sacred Germany" is to kill their despot Führer and negotiate their country's surrender to the Allied forces...

With the help of Stauffenberg's fresh perspective on their political crisis, the insurrectionists hatch a plan to assassinate Hitler (David Bamber) using a briefcase bomb smuggled into a meeting at his "Wolf's Lair" bunker retreat, and invoke martial law ("Operation Valkyrie") following the explosion, which has been rewritten to trick the SS into unknowingly aiding their coup d'état.

As you'd imagine the Norse beings of its title, Valkyrie moves with efficiency and grace, eating up its two hours ravenously. There's no fat on its bones; it's lithe, unswerving, and flies through events from beginning to end. A testament to Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander's fact-based script that the plot shoots straight and hits its target dead centre. Singer directs with his usual efficiency, enthusiasm and visual élan, delivering the requisite tension during its two bombing sequences, while ensuring strong performances from a starry supporting cast that includes Bill Nighy (excellent as unsure officer Olbricht), Terence Stamp (as the quietly-assured Beck), Kenneth Branagh (as the pariot Henning), Tom Wilkinson (as gruff impediment Fromm, head of the Reserve Army), Eddie Izzard (the comms officer at Wolf's Lair), and Kevin McNally (as political mover Goerdeler, who hopes to become Chancellor after the takeover).

Already a kind of proto-Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise fits the part of von Stauffenberg very well, embodying the cool determination and pragmatism necessary to transform idle talk of insurrection into life-threatening political action. It's not a terribly complex character to play, particularly because Valkyrie dispenses with too much character-building in preference for a supple thriller that's more interested in crafting a historically-accurate Ocean's Eleven-like war movie-cum-comic book. But that's not to say Valkyrie's reprehensibly low-brow and treats its event as popcorn spectacle, just that it's focused more on story mechanics than getting under the skin of a man like Stauffenberg -- whose own family are reduced to a few scenes.

Cruise's presence immediately lends Valkyrie a vibe that sets it apart from Liam Neeson starring in Schindler's List, say. He may be ever more willing to digitally-mutilate himself to play such roles (paraplegic in Born On The Fourth Of July, facially-scarred in Vanilla Sky), but Cruise headlining still signals the film's mainstream intent. Hitler himself is presented not unlike a Bond villain at times, stroking a Doberman in place of a white cat in his mountaintop "lair". The film plays like a graphic novel adaptation without the excuse of any such source material, and is perhaps definitive proof that Singer's perfect at bringing page panels to life on celluloid, even when panels only exist in his head...

Overall, Valkyrie's a surprisingly enjoyable and pulpy take on a traditional WWII film, but one that doesn't take too many liberties with historical accuracy and gets the balance right. Maybe it could, or should, have been deeper and more complex, but it tells a thrilling story in a very suspenseful way (even though history is its own spoiler), and it's worth celebrating the bravery of those unafraid to stand up for their principles, at great personal cost. You'll be entertained for 120 minutes, then moved as the credits roll -- what more do you want?

directed by: Bryan Singer written by: Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander starring: Tom Cruise (Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg), Kenneth Branagh (Major General Henning), Bill Nighy (General Friedrich Olbricht), Terence Stamp (Colonel General Ludwig Beck), Tom Wilkinson (Colonel General Friedrich Fromm), Caroce van Houten (Nina Schenk Gräfin von Stauffenberg), Kevin McNally (Dr. Carl Friedrich Goerdeler), David Schofield (Erwin von Witzleben), Christian Berkel (Colonel Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim), Jamie Parker (Werner von Haeften), Eddie Izzard (General Erich Fellgiebel), David Bamber (Adolf Hitler), Thomas Kretschmann (Major Otto Ernst Remer), Harvey Friedman (Dr. Joseph Goebbels), Kenneth Cranham (Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel), Matthias Freihof (Heinrich Himmler) & Philipp von Schulthess (Major General Henning von Tresckow's Aide) / MGM / 120 min. / $75 million (budget)