There’s an almost charmingly old-fashioned feel to this Nazi-era adventure from Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie (who previously partnered on “The Usual Suspects”), which feels like a throwback to pictures as old as “The Desert Fox” (1951). “Valkyrie” is a retelling of the well-known 1944 plot by disaffected German officers to assassinate Hitler, replace the Nazi regime and thereby save the country from utter destruction and preserve the national soul: their plot, as it was finally developed, involved not only killing the Fuhrer but using a standby military force, called Valkyrie, that he’d established to keep order in the event of an uprising instead to arrest the main components of the government after his removal. There was a 1990 television movie about the event called “The Plot to Kill Hitler,” but the story hasn’t been the subject of an English-language feature before this, though several German pictures and TV productions relating it have previously appeared.
In this version, Tom Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a dedicated soldier of the old school disgusted by Nazi rule. After he’s wounded in North Africa—losing an eye, his right arm and several fingers on his left hand–he’s recruited into a dissenting group that includes General Von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), General Olbricht (Bill Nighy) and retired General Beck (Terence Stamp), and actually becomes the chief architect and prime mover of the final plan, bringing the reluctant General Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard), the communications director at the Wolf’s Lair compound where the attempt on Hitler’s life is to occur, into the conspiracy. A far more ambiguous player is General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), the commander of the reserve forces in Berlin, who will have to be either persuaded to join the plotters or forcibly removed from his post for the effort to succeed.
Anyone who didn’t sleep through his high school history class or has never turned on the History Channel will know full well that the plot doesn’t succeed, Hitler survives, the conspirators suffer an unhappy fate and the war drags on for nearly a year longer, until Hitler commits suicide in his bunker as Berlin is falling. So “Valkyrie” can’t depend on a surprise ending. Like Fred Zinneman’s “The Day of the Jackal” (1973), which recounted a plot to assassinate General De Gaulle, or the episode of the old “Untouchables” series about a loner’s effort to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt that resulted in the death of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak instead, the picture has to build tension despite the preordained finish, by tightening the screws through a carefully calibrated dramatization of how the attempt went wrong.
McQuarrie and Singer do a fairly solid job of this, sticking pretty closely to the historical record (though obviously indulging in some simplification) and managing to lay out the facts clearly enough for viewers to follow without too much trouble. What they’re not able to do is to invest the picture with any special depth or larger resonance. It’s a crisp, clean recitation of a footnote in World War II history that’s interesting but not compelling, except as a reminder—not exactly unique nowadays—that there were good Germans during the Nazi era, too.
Cruise, whose production company bankrolled the picture, makes a respectable but not outstanding hero. Stauffenberg was by all accounts an extremely handsome fellow, and Cruise fills that bill, and he’s freed from the obligation to attempt a German accent by a device used early in the narrative—not a new one, but still good. To be sure, he never succeeds in getting under the character’s skin, but he’s at least a reasonable facsimile as far as the externals go. Among the other conspirators, Bill Nighy does an especially good job as the nervous Olbricht, but Branagh is good as well, Stamp makes up for his wretched performance in “Yes Man” with his more restrained turn here, and Izzard is convincingly spineless. Wilkinson is even better as the commander trying to play both sides of the game. (They don’t have to do German accents either, but curiously their British tones clash with Cruise’s flat American ones.) But all of them remain largely cardboard figures, pawns shuffled around the chessboard as the plot requires. David Bamber makes a suitably strange Hitler, but Carice van Houten is pretty much wasted as Stauffenberg’s doting wife (this is, after all, a man’s movie).
“Valkyrie” is lovingly mounted, with fine production design by Lilly Kilvert and Patrick Lamb, art direction by John Warnke, Keith Pain and Ralf Schreck, set decoration by Bernard Henrich and costume design by Joanna Johnston. It’s also expertly edited by John Ottman, who additionally supplies a supportive score, and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography is excellent without being especially imaginative.
It all suits a film that’s a thoroughly respectable historical re-enactment, though lacking the epic scope and dramatic urgency that would make it truly memorable one. It will probably wind up being run endlessly on The History Channel in due course.