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Movie Review: Valkyrie

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Hi, I'm Tom Cruise and I'm playing a Nazi. A good Nazi! | Photo courtesy of United Artists

The one question most people will ask about Valkyrie--fairly or unfairly--is, "Does Tom Cruise ruin this movie?" The answer--as fairly as I can state it--is that he doesn't ruin it, but he also doesn't particularly add anything significant to it which is a shame because Valkyrie should have been a good picture. The source material is rich indeed; the performances are mostly strong and the visual control of director Bryan Singer is absolutely top-notch. However, given the dominating presence of Cruise's character within the narrative, the best thing that can be said about Valkyrie is that it's probably better than you expect it to be.

For those unfamiliar with the details of the story, it concerns what was probably the most successful attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler by the German Resistance (many his own confederates within the Nazi Party). The putative assassin was one Claus von Stauffenberg who--were it not for a few last-minute changes of venue--may have been able to fulfill the grand ambitions of the Resistance plot and kill the Fuhrer. Of course, as we all know now, he obviously failed. Valkyrie follows Stauffenberg from the deserts of North Africa where he is grievously wounded to his ultimate, unceremonious execution at the hands of the SS in Berlin.

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Even Nazis had to line up at the deli counter. | Photo courtesy of United Artists

As noted above, everyone knows that Hitler eventually died by his own hand in a Berlin bunker. This presents Valkyrie with a unique challenge, especially since it is structured and presented in the style of a suspense/espionage thriller. How do you keep the tension ramped up when every person in the audience can pretty much guess the ending? It's here that Singer and editor John Ottman do their best work. When the bomb blast goes off and Stauffenberg races back to Berlin to initiate the uprising against the Nazis, you half-believe he may succeed despite the incredible weight of history convincing you that he won't.

And, of course, he doesn't. After a brief moment of weakness, the Nazis rouse themselves and quickly exterminate Stauffenberg and his rebels. Unfortunately, it's here that the film wobbles badly. The German Resistance is portrayed quite heroically throughout Valkyrie--after all these were people who were risking their lives and the lives of their families by essentially being engaged in treason against the government. And yet their deaths are treated almost antiseptically. One can see the point in Singer's stoicism, but after so much building tension some genuine emotional release would have been welcome.

Some critics have carped at Singer's insistence on having his actors use their own accents instead of affecting German ones for the film. I think it's a minor quibble (Amadeus succeeded wonderfully using the same idea). Frankly, I'm tired of watching actors do bad accents when they play a foreign role (and there is always one actor in that type of film who is terrible). The genuine criticism of Singer should surround his selection of Cruise for the title role (assuming he actually had a choice which is open to debate). It's a decent film that could have been very good. It's always a shame to have to hold back on praise.