Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Valykyrie - Tom Cruise's best role yet

The boys and I went to see Valkyrie last night, the new movie about the July 20, 1944 plot to blow Adolf Hitler to bits, neutralize the SS, assume control of the German government and bring the war to close on terms more favorable to Germany than unconditional surrender.

This movie is surprisingly good with a more powerful impact than I expected, even though I was already familiar with most of the history of the unsuccessful coup.

Normally at this point in a blog review, I would alert you about spoilers to follow, but that would be a bit like warning you that RMS Titanic would sink at the end of James Cameron's movie about it. The historical facts of the July 20 plot are well known: a group of German army officers, some of general-officer rank and some retired, plus some civilians, plotted to assassinate Hitler in the summer of 1944. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg was the hub man, with direct access to Hitler. On July 20, Claus attended a conference at Hitler's forward headquarters in Poland, called the Wolf's Lair. Claus carried into the conference room a briefcase with a powerful bomb inside with its time fuze already functioning. Then another conspirator called Claus on the phone, enabling him to leave the building without raising suspicion.

Shortly afterward, the bomb exploded, killing three officers and wounding many more. Hitler, though, happened to be shielded from the bulk of the blast by the heavy, oaken conference table and escaped with only light injuries.

Not knowing that Hitler had survived, the plotters set in motion their plan to seize control of the government in Berlin. Using an existing plan called "Valkyrie" (Walk├╝re), they succeeded only briefly. As word spread that Hitler was alive and still in command, the plot fell apart. That night, von Stauffenberg and some other key plotters were executed.

It is a particular challenge to make a movie of real history and present it both accurately and suspensefully. James Cameron didn't even try in Titanic, preferring to tell a wholly fictional love story aboard the doomed vessel while sticking to facts (or best conjecture) in representing the ship itself and its sinking. Ron Howard's Apollo 13 met the challenge extremely well, varying little from the actual history yet telling the story with suspense that was sometimes gripping.

Director Bryan Singer succeeds in Valkyrie. He's helped along by an excellent screenplay and an outstanding cast, especially (Wunder von Wundern!) Tom Cruise. Filming in Berlin helped a lot too, in fact, the firing-squad execution of von Stauffenberg and three other plotters was filmed at the actual site they died, Berlin's Bendler Block, where stands the only memorial in Berlin to any German military members of the war.

Cruise plays von Stauffenberg with (for him) severe understatement. It was refreshing to see Cruise in a movie where he was not "Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise." The role is unlike any role I recall him playing. The film opens in North Africa, where von Stauffenberg was badly shot up by Allied P-40 Warhawks (which are excellently CGI rendered). Losing an eye, the whole of one hand and two fingers from the other leaves von Stauffenberg permanently handicapped. This is the only combat scene of the movie, which, as Cruise said on the publicity circuit, is not really a war movie at all, but an espionage-suspense thriller set in wartime Germany. Unlike Cruise's past films, where his characters usually shook off gunshot wounds and club beatings within minutes, von Stauffenberg's disabilities really do matter and affect why the bomb plot didn't kill Hitler (won't spoil that one any further).

My only complaint about Cruise as von Stauffenberg is that Cruise's past roles - most being action-hero, physical roles - are almost too much baggage for him to break free in Valkyrie, wherein Cruise's character perforce must stay firmly within what is actually, humanly possible. But it works.

What I liked --

The actors didn't use phony German accents. Cruise talked like, well, Cruise. None of this, "Vee must neffer be caught. Iss ze bomb shtrong enuff?" stuff. It may be that Cruise can't do accents, so director Singer skipped doing them. Still, it works overall. OTOH, the cast is international, so Englishman Tim Wilkinson, playing General Friedrich Fromm, sounds like Lord Cornwallis, whom he played in Mel Gibson's The Patriot. And German actor Thomas Kretschmann, playing Major Otto Ernst Remer, speaks English perfectly well, but he does have, well, a German accent.

The musical score lets you know from the beginning that the movie is about heroic men and women whose will not prevail. This is not a triumphalist movie and the music reflects that. It is low key, mostly strings and thankfully bereft of the martial drumrolls that seem always to accompany movie characters in Nazi uniforms.

The supporting cast is excellent. Terence Stamp is utterly believable as retired General Ludwig Beck. David Bamber plays Adolf Hitler with physical precision, though the part is not as large as one might think for a movie about a plot to kill him. Bill Nighy as General Friedrich Olbrich portrays a weak reed of a soul who clutches at a key moment. Wilkinson's portrayal of Fromm captures perfectly that reprehensible soul who mugwumped his way through the plot, then summarily ordered the execution of the von Stauffenberg and some others to cover his own tracks.

The accuracy of the time is well done, from uniforms to aircraft to sidearms.

Overall, I give Valkyrie eight of of 10 stars.

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