Film Review: Valkyrie

Meticulous reconstruction of a real-life plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the last months of World War II, minus tension or pacing.

Based on a true story, Valkyrie feels hemmed in by facts, especially the inescapable fact that a conspiracy by a clique of rogue German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the waning days of World War II failed. In some hands the premise would be a chance to examine the people involved, their motives and fears, maybe even their personal lives. Director Bryan Singer takes a different tack, trying so hard to persuade viewers that the scheme had a chance of succeeding that the film adopts the tone of a documentary. It would take a real war buff to find fault with Valkyrie's uniforms and weaponry, its tanks and teletypes, its authentically fascist locations. But then only a buff would appreciate the panoply of essentially anonymous German soldiers and politicians who parade through the story.

Foremost among these is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the resolute and partially crippled officer played by Tom Cruise. First introduced as the only decent German soldier in northern Africa, Stauffenberg then becomes the only German with the integrity and guts to blow up Hitler with a booby-trapped attaché case. Valkyrie wastes a lot of time trying to prove that Stauffenberg is a good guy at heart, but in the long view, whether the colonel was nice or mean is beside the point. What screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander needed to do was explain Stauffenberg's character, show why he decided to take such risks, not give Cruise the World War II equivalent of Mission: Impossible.

Cruise performs capably enough, although he is consistently overshadowed by his British colleagues: a fleshy Kenneth Branagh as a despairing general on the Eastern Front; Bill Nighy wearing a pinched expression and squeezed into the uniform of a coward; Tom Wilkinson as a key officer who tap dances from one side to the other. They have only a few shots, and it's a tribute to their training that they do so well.

As presented here, the logistics of Stauffenberg's scheme, which entails demonizing the SS in order to effect a government coup, have a certain morbid fascination but almost zero potential as drama. What's missing in Valkyrie, something captured effortlessly in films like Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, is any sense of the greater world, of the horrors of war, the maniacal evil of the Nazi regime, its corrosive effect on civilians. The Berlin depicted by Singer is pristine, even sterile, no doubt due in part to budgetary restrictions, but perhaps also because it is a story better told by Germans themselves.

Singer and his screenwriters can't solve the central futility to a plot whose ending viewers already know. So why keep pretending that striding down a corridor or picking up a telephone builds suspense? When Stauffenberg first meets Hitler at the Berghof aerie, Singer cuts from a wall tapestry to a ruddy, corpulent officer to a German shepherd to a massive globe of the world—anything but the actual characters and their story. No matter how accurate the details are, they cannot compensate for the hollow characters performing in front of them.