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Review: 'Valkyrie'

Tom Cruise plays a Nazi plotting to kill Hitler in a garden-variety bad movie.

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2009

‘Valkyrie’: Tom Cruise plays a rebel German officer trying to assassinate Hitler.

Paramount pictures

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The long-delayed release of the much-troubled "Valkyrie," starring Tom Cruise as the man who would off Hitler, promised a stinker of epic proportions. Sadly, it lacks the classic awfulness that might have lifted it into the pantheon of Truly Bad Movies. Instead, what we have here is a garden variety bad movie, of which there have been all too many lately.

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To begin with: Can anybody buy Cruise as someone named Col. Claus von Stauffenberg? His full name – inhale deeply – was Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. He was the German aristocrat who, fed up with the Führer – though not, apparently, with the Reich – engineered a cadre of rebel German officers in 1944 to assassinate Hitler and take control of Berlin using Hitler's own national emergency reserve army.

Since we already know how this is going to turn out, the success of the film depends heavily on the engineering of director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. It depends, most of all, on Cruise, who not only stars but also put together the project under the banner of his company, United Artists.

Since von Stauffenberg is badly injured in Tunisia at the start of the film – losing his right arm, two fingers of his left hand, and his left eye – Cruise is suitably outfitted with a prosthetic arm and black eye patch that afford him ample chances to ham it up. On the other hand, he doesn't trouble to affect a German accent, or even a British one. He sounds like a clean-cut American dude.

This is a bit jarring, since the cast is rounded out by a gaggle of Brits playing Germans with British accents. I realize this is an old theatrical convention, and probably things would sound a lot worse if everyone was trying to sound like Werner Klemperer. Still, the realism of the enterprise is consistently undercut by the duelling US versus. English intonations (which, at times, seems to be what the war is really all about). One by one, von Stauffenberg's enablers parade before us as enacted by Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, and Kenneth Branagh (as Maj.-Gen. Henning von Tresckow, who tries to kill the Führer with some booby-trapped French liqueur. What, no schnapps?). Hitler, on the skids and played with suitably creepy understatement by David Bamber, does without the Britishisms. Such are the privileges of the damned.

The uniforms in this movie are a lot crisper than the storytelling, which doesn't really crank into high gear until near the end. But there's something disreputable about turning such a complex true story into essentially just another routine World War II action picture. Singer doesn't really engage the ambiguities of his material. For example, how could one be against Hitler while at the same time be a champion of the Reich? Would von Stauffenberg's assassination attempt have occurred if the Germans at that time were winning? We never hear of the conviction among some of the plotters that, by killing Hitler, they would align Germany with the Allies against the Soviets.

I'm not saying "Valkyrie" should have been suitable for the History Channel. But surely there is some middle ground between a history lesson and mindless action-adventure. The people who made "Valkyrie" not only didn't find that ground; they weren't even looking for it. They were too busy rummaging through old uniforms and old movies. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language.)

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