Empty Balcony: Valkyrie

Sometimes big time actors put on their serious pants and play a Nazi-era German protagonist. I don’t know if ego or decades spent in a celebrity bubble deprive these actors of common sense, but these movies occasionally get made, and there’s always an A-lister out there willing to play one of the 20th century’s most notorious bad guys. In Valkyrie, the 2008 film directed by Bryan Singer, that A-lister was Tom Cruise.

Going over Cruise’s public persona is a waste of time, but I do remember hearing about this film back in the year it was released, and thinking Cruise must be delusional about the amount of leeway movie audiences are willing to give him. There is only one man in Hollywood who can play a good World War II German, and that man is Liam Neeson. With any other actor and any other character other than Oskar Schindler, a film is walking a fine line. To stumble means embarrassment, at best, and career-threatening ostracization, at worst. With a degree of difficulty that high, who in their right mind would choose to star in a film such as Valkyrie? King Mapother, that’s who.

Valkyrie tells the true story of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an officer in the Wehrmacht during World War II who was also a central conspirator in a plot to kill Adolph Hitler, install a new government in Berlin, and sue the allies for peace. It was a bold plan, foiled only by circumstance and the world’s strongest table leg.

Anyway, the first we see of von Stauffenberg, his good guy bona fides are being established in a voiceover that assures the audience that they need not feel guilty about rooting for the hero in the grey uniform. He’s no Nazi. The movie thankfully doesn’t bang that home too much. Rather than have to keep reminding us over and over that Claus is an Valkyrie movie posterokay guy, he’s kept about as far away from the war and all its ugliness as is possible. In this flick, there’s only one bad guy, and just about everyone is trying to kill him.

Cruise is joined in the conspiracy by Kenneth Branagh as Major General Henning von Tresckow, Terrence Stamp as Colonel General Ludwig Beck, Tom Wilkinson as Colonel General Friedrich Fromm, and Bill Nighy as General Friedrich Olbricht, among others.

Wait a minute. Claus von Stauffenberg was a colonel, yet the movie portrays him as running the conspiracy, instead of that gaggle of generals listed above. How does that work? Easy. Tom Cruise is the star, not Bill freakin’ Nighy. It’s also historically accurate.

The conspirators spend well over a year waiting for the opportunity to strike against Hitler and initiate the coup. Singer is a deft enough storyteller that he makes sure the audience doesn’t wallow in this dead time. Onscreen captions inform viewers how much time has passed from scene to scene, but otherwise all the chess moves of the conspiracy feel as if they only took a matter of days. A telling of the 20th July plot could have gotten lost in intricacy and detail if the filmmakers weren’t careful. The facts are twisted about and dumbed down some, but such could be written about any historical dramatization. In order to make an effective film, history must be distorted to fit the media. Should a person want the least amount of distortion, plenty of historians have written books about von Stauffenberg and company. Should a person want to be entertained in the best and easiest way possible, then they can turn to a film and hope the director knows what they are doing. Singer does.

The people and locations, the threads and tendrils of the conspiracy, fly by, but it never felt like I would lose track if I looked away for a few moments. There are some historical films, such as All the President’s Men, that can leave viewers behind even if they’re paying attention. Singer keeps the viewer on track by making sure we don’t see too many faces or hear too many names. A couple characters, such as Branagh’s, could have eaten up more screen time and complicated things. Instead, the film focuses most of its attention on its star. Valkyrie is a hair over two hours long, so it’s good that viewers don’t have to sweat the details.

Conspiracy. Hitler. Coup. Hero.

All that remains to be seen is how von Stauffenberg kills Hitler and ends the war.

Well, we know that didn’t happen. Viewers familiar with how the war ended will never be left guessing how the film ends. Despite this, Valkyrie is a tense thriller. The journey from beginning to inevitable tragic conclusion is engaging. Cruise never enters into total suspension of disbelief, but that doesn’t matter. He also proves again that he can more than hold his own in a roomful of serious acting talent.

Yet, Valkyrie appears headed to obscurity. Every big star has projects like that scattered throughout their filmography. It’s big, it’s flashy, got a wide release, made a profit, and is a decent movie. But it evokes almost nothing about the star. It’s an item on a list. What a contrast to the possibilities. Who would have ever thought Tom Cruise could shout out a mighty ‘Heil Hitler!’ in a movie and it would be met with a shrug? Such is the latter half of a career, I guess.

Of final note is David Bamber, who played the most chilling Hitler I’ve seen in film. He doesn’t appear all that much, but he almost makes the film worth seeing on his own.

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