Friday, December 26, 2008

Valkyrie: Oh, so close...

Valkyrie (2008) • View trailer for Valkyrie
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.26.08
Buy DVD: Valkyrie • Buy Blu-Ray: Valkyrie [Blu-ray]

After numerous delays, amid speculation that the picture was snake-bit, and with his artistic credibility on the line — not to mention the fate of his still-fresh ownership of United Artists — Tom Cruise finally has gotten Valkyrie into theaters.
Soon after recovering from injuries sustained in North Africa, and because he
has made no secret of his distaste for the direction Hitler's war has taken, Col.
Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise, standing left) is approached by Maj. Gen.
Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh, standing right) and asked to join
an ambitious plot to assassinate Der Fuehrer.

The good news is that the film is a crackling drama, its fascinating depiction of dissension within Hitler's elite a reassuring reminder that numerous high-ranking German politicians and military officers were quite unhappy with the madman leading their country.

The bad news — for Cruise, anyway — is that he's completely miscast in this project, his all-American good looks and blatantly American accent at odds with the German officer he's playing. More critically, he's blown off the screen by a veritable wealth of supporting players, many of them British, all of them vastly superior actors.

Despite being the center of these events, Cruise's Col. Claus von Stauffenberg is the least interesting — and most shallowly realized — character in the film.

All stories of this nature, where suspense must be built from actual historical events with known outcomes, succeed or fail on the basis of how deeply involved we get with either the characters or the situation. Despite knowing (for example) that the astronauts of Apollo 13 made it back safely, we nonetheless were at the edge of our chairs during director Ron Howard's absorbing film.

In terms of political thrillers, the benchmark was set with 1973's Day of the Jackal, director Fred Zinnemann's brilliant adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's dynamite best-seller, which detailed a plot to assassinate Charles De Gaulle. Notwithstanding the obvious fact that De Gaulle never was assassinated, we actually began to worry, as professional killer Edward Fox went through all his meticulous preparations, that we might have misremembered history.

The scheme, it appeared, couldn't possibly go wrong!

Valkyrie takes a somewhat different approach in its depiction of the so-called "July 20th Plot" to kill Hitler and replace the entire Nazi government. As this screenplay — credited to Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander — begins in 1943 and builds to its climax during the summer of 1944, it's almost immediately obvious that well-laid plans will go awry, and that these dedicated and well-meaning conspirators will be caught; the only questions are when, and how.

This almost inevitable failure is even referenced by one particularly mordant line of dialogue: "It's a military operation. Of course something will go wrong."

One can't blame the growing cynicism of those involved in such clandestine schemes, because Hitler already had survived numerous assassination attempts (one, involving a bomb-laden box disguised as two bottles of Cointreau, depicted early in this film). The man seemed to be charmed, which of course made him even more arrogant.

All this produces an atmosphere of poignant, melancholy inevitability in director Bryan Singer's film. We immediately respect these many men — and more than a few women — for their courage and valor, in great part because they're all depicted with such persuasive conviction.

The "July 20th" plan itself is ingenious, and — at least as suggested here — very likely might have succeeded, were it not for Stauffenberg's hubris, and his need to be the one to pull the trigger, so to speak.

Because that's the one area where, as a result of events in this story's prologue, Stauffenberg should have paid closer attention to his physical limitations.

This should have been the basis for a fascinating character study: the dichotomy between Stauffenberg's desires, his unargued military ingenuity and the earlier battlefield injuries that took one eye, his right hand and several fingers on his left. But McQuarrie and Alexander's script never goes there, and Cruise certainly never does; even comrades-in-conspiracy who should know better, who might at least have pressed the issue of whether Stauffenberg is capable of arming and placing a bomb, never question the matter.

That's just silly.

Cruise's emotional content is restricted to a few stirring scenes with Stauffenberg's wife, Nina (Carice van Houten), and their children; a camera freeze of their little girl, snapping a respectful salute to her father, conveys the degree of danger they're placed in, as a result of Stauffenberg's activities. That he'll be killed, if caught, is a certainly; what subsequently would happen to his family ... does not bear thinking about.

Our hearts and minds are much more strongly engaged by those who surround and assist Stauffenberg. Kenneth Branagh has several impressively tense scenes as Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow, involved with the earlier Cointreau assassination attempt, particularly when he endures some verbal cat-and-mouse with the always suspicious Col. Heinz Brandt (Tom Hollander at his toadying best).

Tresckow brings Stauffenberg into the conspiracy, where our hero encounters all the other key players. Bill Nighy immediately stands out, as always, as the somewhat priggish Gen. Friedrich Olbricht, whose resolute words, we worry, may wind up at odds with the actual actions his nervous demeanor can deliver.

Jamie Parker (The History Boys) makes a particularly strong impression as Lt. Werner von Haeften, Stauffenberg's personal aide. Indeed, Parker delivers much of this film's dramatic tension, as we watch various steps of the unfolding plot succeed — or fail — through Haeften's eyes.

Also memorable is the actress who plays the unnamed woman charged with typing up the fateful details of Operation Valkyrie, and later staffs the phones under Stauffenberg's watchful eye.

David Bamber is chilling as Adolf Hitler, not so much for anything he says or does — his lines are few, and always understated — but mostly because he so thoroughly depicts the man's unsettling, visibly unhinged megalomania. The notion that so many highly placed German politicians and military officials remain willing to follow this man, at a point where he clearly has become unbalanced, is scary indeed.

Production designers Lilly Kilvert and Patrick Lumb impeccably re-create the proper sense of time and place, and several of this story's settings have their own disquieting resonance: the Bendlerblock, where Operation Valkyrie is born; "The Berghof," Hitler's home and headquarters in the Bavarian Alps; and particularly the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's bunkered hideout in East Prussia, where the assassination attempt is scheduled to take place.

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shoots the film with a color palette that emphasizes all red tones, after the Nazi swastika; you've not seen so many bloodily ruby hues outside of a vampire flick.

We cannot expect authenticity in the conversations that occur between these various conspirators; it's not as if anybody took notes. Such encounters are the stuff of fiction, although it all plays with reasonable conviction. But it does appear that McQuarrie and Alexander adhere to what is known of established history, and that's important.

Highly visible figures such as Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg are easily celebrated, and have been glorified in earlier film projects. It's equally important to recognize the valor of Stauffenberg, Tresckow and the many other individuals who risked both painful deaths and possible public censure — for there was no guarantee that the German people would ever view them as anything but traitors — in the service of what they believed was a just cause, and the right thing to do.

In these respects, Valkyrie is a worthy and important film.

I just wish that Cruise, in his capacity as head of United Artists, had displayed the wisdom to cast somebody else in the lead role.

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