Valkyrie (2008)

  • Review: *** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Kevin McNally, David Bamber
  • Director: Bryan Singer
  • Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Nathan Alexander
  • Length: 120 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and brief strong language.

In the sophomore offering of the reconstituted studio United Artists, Valkyrie pushes its politics to the backburner in favor of an action drama about one of many attempts from within his own government to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

With Lions for Lambs, Tom Cruise and his company tried to make their first major effort a movie that could compete at the Oscars in a climate dominated by Iraq War commentary flops. When the film failed to perform to expectations and managed to receive quite a bit of derision from critics, the studio seemed to take a new tack and that was to entertain. Much like fledgling studios Lionsgate and New Line when they first started out, United Artists, though a long-established studio started by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks during the silent era, needed to start from the ground up and try to make a name for itself in a niche market. The resultant Valkyrie is far more of a success in that regard than one might have expected.

The story, revolving around Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) and his involvement with a secret insurgency and their attempts to kill Adolf Hitler and restore glory and respect to Germany in the process, is a solid effort from a filmmaker who obviously knows, understands and loves the medium.

Directed by X-Men helmer Bryan Singer, the film takes the tone of action movie more than serious political epic. It is much better served by this change, one we weren’t certain would occur when the project was first announced. While there are a number of flaws with the film, which I will explore momentarily, the film ultimately succeeds in entertaining the audience with a rocky thriller that builds hope for a positive outcome despite foreknowledge of an ultimate failure. The joy is in getting there.

Cruise isn’t as bad as he could have been, though the reliance on an American accent to play the character is at odds with the various other accents (including British and German) in the film. The decision was rumored to have been made because Cruise’s German accent was laughable. While I don’t doubt entirely the veracity of that claim, the opening statements by Stauffenberg in German, spoken by Cruise, were fairly solid.

Of the other actors who maintained their own accents during the film, the most distracting were Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson who seemed out of depth in the film, each giving a shallow performance that seemed to be at odds with the authenticity around them. Their accents were a large part of their failure, but not entirely.

But, for these bad performances, there were several other good ones. Bill Nighy, who has become one of my favorite character actors, delivers a nurtured performance as General Olbricht, one of Stauffenberg’s key conspirators. And Eddie Izzard is triumphant in his all-to-brief turn switchboard controller Fellgiebel. Not only does he pick up the German accent almost effortlessly, he manages to hide every vestige of his comedic roots in a credible performance.

The story is very similar in style and pacing to heist and spy movies where the heroes must infiltrate their target destination, plant their bomb and escape scot-free only to meet resistance and face challenges to their attempts.

One of the greatest thrills in watching the film was in the meticulous detail Singer and his production staff put into the production. Every set detail, costume touch and plot element was clearly researched in great depth, making for an immersive experience. The coup of all of this was David Bamber’s magnificent portrayal of Hitler. Giving him the stilted self-confidence, strange mannerisms and poster, Bamber created an indelible image that deserves more recognition that is has received.

Although it is no great masterpiece, it is at least an entertaining one that has you rooting, in spite of a known sense of futility, that perhaps this one time history was wrong and they had assassinated Hitler.