The year is 1943 and Valkyrie, the second release under the revamped United Artists brand, opens with German officer Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) on assignment in Africa. He had been sent there because his opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime had become dangerously explicit and bellicose. His promotion to lieutenant-colonel of the general staff and transfer from the European lines to Africa is intended to give him some protection from pro-Nazi officers who might make trouble for him.
An attack on a transport column in Africa leaves Stauffenberg badly wounded. He loses his left eye, the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand, and his right hand above the wrist. Given director Bryan Singer's resume (which includes X-Men and Superman Returns) and the opening sequence, initial concerns that the film might be turned into an action movie are quickly dispelled. Given that the end of the movie is never in doubt, the movie never quite becomes a suspense thriller either. Yet Valkyrie still manages to deliver a thought-provoking and moving story of loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice, and doubt.
Following his recovery, Stauffenberg becomes more deeply and directly involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. The resistance circle is far-ranging, and involves Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), whose failed attempt to blow up Hitler's plane is portrayed with dramatic effect. When the bomb hidden with bottles of cognac fails to explode, the package needs to be recovered before the bomb explodes or is delivered and discovered.
Tresckow serves to introduce Stauffenberg to the resistance circle, which is led by Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp) and Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin McNally). Beck had resigned as Chief of Army General Staff in 1938, and Goerderler had resigned as mayor of Leipzig in 1937. After their respective resignations these two men became focal points for various strands of resistance that reached throughout German political, military, religious, and social classes. Stauffenberg's own religious convictions are given some light but respectful treatment. Stauffenberg's Roman Catholic faith has been noted by many to be a significant contributing factor to his ability to resist the allure of Nazi ideology.
The film does a serviceable job making sense of the chaos that surrounded the various attempts, non-attempts, and abortive failures that led up to the final try to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944. The title of the film is taken from the name of the operation that was in place to quell any social uprising that might upset the stability of the Reich government. Operation Valkyrie was intended to mobilize the reserve army in the event of unrest or other civil emergency. The conspirators brilliantly manage to alter the details of the operation so that after Hitler's assassination the military coup might have a real chance of effective execution.
Once Tresckow's attempt fails and Stauffenberg actively joins the resistance circle, Stauffenberg and his activities become almost the exclusive focus of the film. The difficulty with this approach is that it tends simultaneously to flatten out Stauffenberg's character, glossing over the important development in his own thinking and commitment to active resistance, as well as to minimize the importance of other players in the conspiracy.
It is never explained, for example, who Ludwig Beck is, or how significant it is that a man of his stature is involved in the conspiracy (Beck was to be the head of state in the new government, and Goerdeler was to be the new chancellor). We are left to draw our own conclusions about Beck's importance and status when he makes calls on behalf of the replacement government and addresses important figures by their first names.
Similarly Col. Hans Oster, who had been forced to resign in 1943, is mentioned only in passing as Stauffenberg's predecessor in the plot. Oster was an important connection to the enigmatic Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and the so-called Abwehr conspiracy, which included Dietrich Bonhoeffer (all three men were executed after the failure of Stauffenberg's attempt on 8 April 1945).
This focus on Stauffenberg restricts attention to the size, scope, duration, and stature of the conspiracy. There are a few scenes where groups of people are present, but we never get a clear appreciation of the extent to which the success of the operation depended on a network of conspirators across the continent of Europe. Phone calls are made, but we never see or hear from those on the other side. This ultimately wastes the possibility of noteworthy performances from anyone other than Cruise. While this kind of movie simply cannot be expected to deliver a comprehensive overview of the entire ring of conspirators or the dozen or so attempts by Germans to kill Hitler, Valkryie does miss the opportunity to expand the focus in a meaningful way beyond Stauffenberg.
The portrayals of General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), and Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel) are only partial exceptions (Eddie Izzard does a respectable job with what he was given in his role as General Erich Fellgiebel). Olbricht's indecision, Fromm's equivocation, and Quirnheim's steadfastness will stay with the audience long after the movie is over.
The opposition of Canaris and Oster (and many others) to Hitler date from the mid- to late-1930s. Stauffenberg was a relative late-comer to the conspiracy, even though his distaste for the Nazis was long-standing. Stauffenberg's tardiness in coming to the active resistance was certainly off-set by his enthusiasm and courage in execution of the plot. But an opportunity for character development focused on the struggle to realize that active resistance was necessary is lost by the portrayal of Stauffenberg as the unquestioned foundation for resistance from the opening scenes of the movie. It was only after he sustained his injuries in Africa that Stauffenberg's commitment to assassinate Hitler was truly and fully confirmed. And it was only after he was assigned to be Chief of Staff for Fromm that Stauffenberg himself (and through him the conspiracy) was given direct access to Hitler.
All of this places huge pressure on Cruise to deliver a performance worthy of Stauffenberg, and despite the various internal and external obstacles to the film's success, Cruise delivers acceptably well. He never quite casts the aristocratic bearing that everyone attributes to the real-life Stauffenberg. But in treating a story as complicated and difficult as the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler within the confines of a major motion picture release, certain limitations have to be accepted. This movie cannot be all things to all people.
This judgment is made in light of expectations that have been lowered because of the widespread criticisms of Valkyrie that have been leveled since the inception of the project. If the film is approached with such chastened expectations then it delivers a fair depiction of the Stauffenberg plot. Rotten Tomatoes currently rates Valkyrie at a 59%, which is still in the "rotten" range, but which is higher than other films released in the same week (including The Spirit, Marley & Me, and Bedtime Stories).
For an increasing number of recent generations, the events of World War II seem like ancient rather than recent history. If Valkyrie encourages people to learn more about figures like Stauffenberg, Beck, Tresckow, Canaris, Bonhoeffer, and others, then it will have served its purpose.
Nota bene: I have authored an article, "Hitler Assassination Plot of July 20, 1944," for the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present (Wiley-Blackwell: March 2009).