Valkyrie: A serious review
Valkyrie (watch the trailer) is beautifully shot by Bryan Singer and full of solid acting all around (except for Tom Cruise, who isn’t horrible but is still Tom Cruise), but it never comes close to solving that one little problem. You know, the whole protagonist-getting-executed-by-Nazis-at-the-end thing.
The film tells the story of Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg, the man who set the bomb in the final attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944. We open a year earlier on the North African front, where Stauffenberg tries to convince a general to defy Hitler’s orders and abandon a doomed campaign. Just as he succeeds, Allied fighters strafe their camp, killing the general and blowing up the Jeep in which Stauffenberg sits. Singer directs the battle scene brilliantly, striking that perfect balance between realism and actually being able to see what the f-ck’s going on that’s so rare nowadays. Sadly, the action only lasts a few minutes.
From there we move to Berlin, where Stauffenberg wakes up in the hospital with no right hand, no right eye (Cruise alternates between an eye patch and a glass eye, which never looks very convincing), and only two fingers on his left hand. He takes a position at Central Command under General Olbricht (Bill Nighy), who, along with General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), introduces Cruise to a secret committee working to assassinate Hitler. Stauffenberg’s contribution to the plot is to suggest Operation Valkyrie, a contingency plan that allows for a reserve force in Berlin to take control of the government in case of an assassination attempt. In order to carry out the plan, Stauffenberg must also enlist the support of Generals Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) and Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard).
One of the key failures of the film is that the process of enlisting co-conspirators, which should really be the central conflict in the story, is totally anti-climactic. When Cruise interviews a lieutenant who is to become his right hand man, the lieutenant (Jamie Parker) enters the office clicking his heels and shouting “Heil Hitler!”. First thing Cruise says to him is “We’re going to be involved in treason of the highest order.” And the lieutenant basically says, “Hey, man, cool by me.”
Keep in mind, they’ve just met. They’re at a job interview in Nazi Germany (you know, paranoia, secret police, mass executions, etc.). The movie makes it seem like everyone was just chomping at the bit to get in on the plan to kill Hitler, which may be true, but you’d think they’d at least ask for details. It’s the same with Stauffenberg’s wife. We see her and Cruise hug a lot and share meaningful glances, but there’s never that conversation of, “Okay, honey, I’m off to kill the dictator now. I hope I don’t screw it up and get us all murdered.” We’re just sort of left to assume she knows what’s going on and she’s cool with it.
In order for the plot to succeed, a collection of people had to play their parts just so. Stauffenberg had to smuggle a bomb in, assemble it, plant it, leave the room before it exploded, and escape the base without being captured. Instead of being meticulous with these details, the film sort of glosses over them like it’s in a hurry to get to the end. Thing is, we already know the ending, and it’s kind of a downer. If the ending was Cruise taking off his eye patch and revealing that he was actually Kaiser Soze all along, some ambiguity might’ve been okay. But the closest the film ever comes to real drama is just after the assassination attempt, when army commanders in Berlin were simultaneously receiving orders from Stauffenberg that Hitler was dead and to arrest Goebbels, and orders from the SS that Hitler was alive and to arrest Stauffenberg – what’s a Nazi to do! But since the commanders have no way of knowing who’s telling the truth (and we know nothing about the commanders), it doesn’t carry much weight.
It’s not that a movie where the hero dies can’t be good. It’s not even that a movie with a sad ending can’t be good. It’s just that there has to be some compelling conflict before that. William Wallace gets tortured and executed for treason at the end of Braveheart too. The difference is, Wallace inspired his people while killing the shit out of a lot of bad guys. In Valkyrie, none of the bad guys get killed and we don’t see too much inspiring going on either. In the end, it’s just a failed coup, and you wonder if Stauffenberg was a hero or just a guy with good intentions who took a lot of people down with him who would’ve been better off just waiting another 10 months. Imagine Ocean’s 11 if it ended in everyone getting thrown in jail. And with more Nazis.