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Movie Review: Valkyrie

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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!

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About James O'Neil

  • Nihil

    It’s almost like you saw a different movie than I did. Don’t get me wrong, it was OK, but how can they build suspense when everyone knows what is going to happen? You are just waiting for the hatchet; it’s like watching a cow in line at the slaughter house. And this film has no more than minimal action to keep you otherwise occupied.

    The Brit actors were fantastic, but there were so many of them that character development for each was minimal. They showed off their wares scene by scene, but they weren’t allowed to do more. It even became hard to remember who was who.

    I also found that after the action in Africa and the bringing of Cruise into the plot (which together took about the first 20 minutes) that the movie dragged along for the next hour (I was checking my watch..not a good sign).

    Maybe it’s just me, but Variety does seem in synch with my take. My guess is Pitt & Button will slaughter this flick come X-mas.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Don’t get me wrong, it was OK, but how can they build suspense when everyone knows what is going to happen?

    Nihil, did you ever see the film The Day of the Jackal? It was about a plot to assassinate de Gaulle. Now we all know that de Gaulle was not assassinated; nevertheless, it is one of the finest suspense thrillers of the 70s.

  • Nihil

    “Nihil, did you ever see the film The Day of the Jackal?”

    Dr. Dreadful: I did, and loved it. So good point — suspense can be created despite a pre-known final outcome. That puts the failure of Valkyrie to create suspense that can carry from one scene to the next even more squarely on the people who made the film.

    Comments relating to the lack of suspense floated throughout the theater as the audience mustered out.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Indeed, Nihil. And although The Day of the Jackal concerns a historical figure, creating suspense even though the final outcome is known is a time-honored thriller technique. Think of the TV show Columbo, for instance. The audience always knew from the get-go who the killer was: the suspense lay in how Columbo was going to figure it out.

    As for Valkyrie, I’ll have to reserve comment until I’ve seen it. I’ve heard that Cruise is very good in it. He often is: I have great respect for him as an actor, for all that off-screen he tends to come across as a complete idiot.

  • Nihil

    Dr Dreadful — I was right with you on Day of the Jackal counterpoint, but Colombo is a diferent animal. It is foremost a character-driven experience. The joy is watching Peter Faulk go about his business, and especially his interactions with others. Think about how his idiosyncrasies are always front and center. Although there is a certain cognitive thrill in discovering how ieach episode unfolds, Colombo is mainly about Colombo (and, BTW, hats of to Peter Faulke for making that happen).

    Valkyrie is a whole different world, almost a polar opposite. I wish that Singer had tried to develop the characters. Maybe he could have done somthing, but the characters are given no more than pro forma attention. The plot, the conspiracy, is all.

    Maybe Cruise had the chance to get some kind of connection, but he drops it if he does. The rest is a maelstorm of characters that you can barely keep track of. Almost all do great job in the odd scenes they are in, but none has the chance to be meaningful.

    So yes, I wish they could have made this Day of the Jackel. Unfortunately, it ain’t close. Colombo doesn’t match up at all to my mind, but you may decided differently if you decide to see the film.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I can only go with you partway, Nihil. Columbo’s idiosyncracies (the scruffiness, the brown mac, the beat-up old car, the basset hound, the oft-mentioned but never seen Mrs Columbo) are part of a time-honored tradition of detective stories, dating back to Sherlock Holmes.

    Such quirks aren’t there just to amuse. Conan Doyle wanted to distinguish his hero from the generic detectives like Dupin and Lecoq with whom readers were familiar (he even has Holmes speak dismissively of them in a couple of the early stories), and he hit upon a way of doing that, arming Holmes with a whole gamut of eccentricities which also happened to be integral to the way he set about the business of detection.

    When, thanks largely to Holmes, detective fiction became wildly popular in the early 20th century, authors found they needed some kind of “hook” to make their hero stand out from the crowd. It’s less of a tradition in movies or in American crime fiction, but in the British school it’s pervasive. There are detectives with just about every quirk you can imagine: priests, doctors, children, aristocrats, authors, historical figures, detectives who are themselves murderers, gay detectives, disabled detectives, incompetent detectives, animal detectives, even dead detectives…!

    The best mystery writers, like Agatha Christie, recognized that you couldn’t simply make your detective odd just for the sake of it. As clever and intricate as Christie’s mysteries are, it usually helps the story if one or other of her two principal heroes, Poirot or Miss Marple, features as a protagonist. The eccentricities of both not only maintain reader interest but are also a vital part of their crime-solving techniques.

    Likewise with Columbo. The murderers he deals with are always highly intelligent, and it’s his quirkiness – the disorganization, the apparent stupidity and naїveté, the annoying persistence (“oh, just one more thing…”) – which causes his antagonists to underestimate him and allow him to eventually break them down.

  • Deputy Dog

    Dreadful:

    I don’t know if more character background would have helped. For example, what could the audience have learned from flashbacks of Stuaffenberg’s childhood?

  • Deputy Dog

    Nihil:

    Button? No offense but Brad Pitt could open up a used car lot with all his romance vehicles. Doh!

  • Nihil

    Dreadful — never said that the treasured Capt. was unique, just unlike anyone in this movie (and you’ve inspired me to catch some old Columbo episodes…time for the direct TV search).

    Dep. Dog — Can’t tell you first hand about Buttons, only know what I read. Check out the reviews. Acccording to them, Button got legs.

  • Sukiyucky

    Good point about detectives and their quirks. Holmes, Columbo, Kojak, Monk. All had their idiosyncracies. Strange that TV viewers prefer it. I guess one of the exceptions would be Mattlock who is more cerebral than idiosyncratic.

    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn’t a romance. Its a going-of-age movie. I might see it. Just hope there isn’t a reverse birth scene. That would be freaky.