December is notorious for holiday flicks. It is also a time where American families reconvene and blitzkrieg the box office to see these saccharine seasonal movies in massive battalions. If you find yourself at the theater and all the “holiday” movies are sold out or you just don’t want to rediscover the true meaning of boredom I suggest having the ticket jockey at your local cinema punch up some tickets for the family for Valkyrie, which will fly into theaters December 25.
I was lucky enough to attend a packed premiere of Tom Cruise’s latest conspiracy and am happy to report there is actually something substantive to watch this holiday season. Valkyrie isn’t your average war movie fare. So war movie widows don’t despair, you won’t be banished to Austrailia to ogle over Hugh Jackman. Valkyrie is a suspense movie — something both mom and dad can agree on. It is also a romance which sis might like and it might have enough action to keep junior from bailing to the arcade.
The family will likely enjoy the film but what is this song-less opera about? As the Allied forces close in on a debilitated Nazi Germany during World War II, one last desperate internal attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler is put into motion. The simple plot is no waltz for the perpetrators, who quickly find out desperate measures aren’t just for Wilhelm Wagner’s musical scores. Even with turncoat higher ranks infiltrating the inner circle of Nazi high command, the ploy poses a daunting task for the conspirators who are all short on hope, trust, and, time.
And alas, it would take more than shooting Hitler to save Germany. Problems are bigger than individuals and even with Hitler dead, the SS would not likely give up power so easily. With that flaw in the ointment, the German Resistance augments Operation Valkyrie — a defensive maneuver where reserve troops are used to quell chaos during intense enemy raids — to include certain liberties to round up members of the SS and eventually gain power. The assassination attempt misses its mark yet the Operation is set in motion by the resistance anyway. A last ditch effort to save the coup becomes thwarted when communications break through that Hitler had in fact survived and the tide turns against the resistance snuffing out the last hope for Germany.
Tom Cruise (who needs no introduction) resurrects the fallen soldier Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg, who embodies the last flickers of conscience and rationality against the entrenched suicidal leadership of the Nazi power structure as a wounded colonel who realizes that saving Germany from utter destruction is only possible through his own betrayal. Cruise presents this character as an inexorable and immortally bold patriot who soldiers on despite the terrifying reality of the mission, galvanized only by the threat of collapse of his beloved and sacred country of which he finds worse than the loss of his own life.
Carice Van Houten plays the Colonel's wife Nina Von Stauffenberg, who must stoically stand by her broken man even though his designs might mean the death of not only him but her and their almost picturesque family. Is Nina the token German wife of the forties or maybe just a woman who knows her husband too well?
In the ranks of the overthrowers are other officers of the Reich played by Kenneth Branagh, Eddy Izzard, and Bill Nighy, among others. Branagh, who played Reinhard Heydrich in the television film Conspiracy, dons a Nazi uniform again as Major-General Henning Von Tresckow, a character who believes the assassination attempt must be executed but is followed by an inescapable shadow of doubt throughout the film. General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) shares the same conflict yet his insufferable indecision at times — even when proper — seems to threaten to foil the whole plot. But not all in the Reich buy the assassination attempt. General Friedrich Fromm (played by Tom Wilkinson) is a detestable and shrewd bulwark against the assassination plot who's character is so thoroughly vile he elicited visceral reactions from the audience. When it comes to masterful performances in Valkyrie, take your pick.
The powerhouses aren't only in the acting trailers however. It was directed by Bryan Singer, who also directed Usual Suspects, X-Men, and X2. He's accomplished both critical and popular successes and with that versatility he attacks this historical drama with an uncanny sense of depth without skimping on the entertainment factor. The movie is two hours long but Singer doesn't make it feel like that. It is written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. You might remember Christopher McQuarrie's name from The Way of the Gun, which he not only wrote but directed and produced.
The production of the film wasn’t as efficient as the legendary socialist transportation systems though. As with any great motion picture epic, Valkyrie ran into problems with everything from film shooting permits to lawsuits by acting extras and delays with backups and overshoots of release dates — but issues like that are often de rigueur for big budget epics such as Valkyrie.
The critics are rallying to the film. Movie critics Jeffrey Lyons and Peter Hammond both praise Valkyrie and the movie is even generating some Oscar buzz already. It is a tautly composed, gut wrenching, and finely crafted film. From scene to scene the movie conveys the underlying immediacy without rushing the development of plot or characters. The terse and layered dialogue misses the melodramatic trap that most emotionally charged films can fall into and the interaction of the characters in the plot relate a gravity that is both frustratingly believable and truly followable. Plus, there are no straw men to be seen.
Valkyrie is a moment in history that needed to be retold. In the fold of every enemy there are those who struggle for redemption; it is an uncomfortable thought given the practically impenetrable evil that Nazi Germany represented. But perhaps this movie introduces another facet to what we would call hero and another facet to what we would call an enemy for a time in history where the world seemed to be tearing apart at the seams. Here's hoping that period is gone but not forgotten. As the Germans say: “Auf wiedersehen,” to the seeing again!