"VALKYRIE" (2008) Review
When I had first learned that ”VALKYRIE”, a movie about the final assassination attempt upon Adolf Hitler, would be released in 2008 . . . I was surprised. Honestly.
And my response had nothing to do any opinion I have about the film. Let me explain.
One has to understand that ”VALKYRIE” had gone through a great deal of turmoil to get made. Whatever problems the movie’s production had encountered, its biggest obstacle turned out to be the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role of Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the architect of this last assassination attempt that occurred on July 20, 1944. Many German politicians protested against the idea of a practicing Scientologist like Cruise portraying someone who has become regarded as a hero for his opposition against Hitler. Even members of von Stauffenberg’s family joined in the protest. The filmmakers of ”VALKYRIE” initially had difficulty setting up filming locations in Germany due to the controversy, but they were later given leeway to film in locations pertaining to the film's story, such as Berlin's historic Bendlerblock. Also, Cruise’s popularity with the American public had sunk during those years between 2005 and 2008. Considering that many of the negative comments about the actor had stemmed from his Scientology beliefs, it seemed to me that religious bigotry had played a large role in the hard feelings against him.
Early in 2008, MGM/United Artists had released trailers of ”VALKYRIE”. Personally, I found them impressive and was happy to learn that the movie was scheduled for a June 2008 theater release. But due to the poor response to the trailers and MGM/United Artists's initial marketing campaign, the studio executives moved the movie’s release date from June 2008 to February 2009. I was also surprised to learn that ”VALKYRIE” had another black mark against it – namely director Bryan Singer. He had built a reputation as a first-rate director with movies such as ”THE USUAL SUSPECTS” and the first two films from the ”X-MEN” franchise. Unfortunately, his reputation hit a snag when the 2006 release of the over-budgeted ”SUPERMAN RETURNS” failed to impress the critics and make a profit for Warner Brothers Studios. I figured that MGM/United Artists was simply going to allow ”VALKYRIE” languish in the theaters during the off season following Christmas, never to be heard of until its DVD release. Thankfully, MGM/United Artists proved me wrong. Eventually, the studio executives announced that ”VALKYRIE” would be released on Christmas Day for the 2008 movies holiday season. When the film was finally released, I rushed out to see it as soon as I possibly could.
As I had earlier stated, ”VALKYRIE” told the story of the July 20, 1944 plot by German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Ever since the years before World War II, there had been a growing number of dissidents that viewed Hitler as the wrong man to be Germany’s leader. This opposition - which included German officers like Ludwig Beck, Henning von Tresckow and Claus von Stauffenberg – led to a series of assassination attempts on Hitler, including one plotted by von Tresckow in March 1943. By September 1943, one of the dissidents, General Friedrich Olbricht, recruited Lieutenant-Colonel von Stauffenberg into their ranks. It was his plan – code name ”Valkyrie” - that led to the last attempt to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. Directed by Bryan Singer, the movie stars Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg. The cast also includes Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Jamie Parker, Eddie Izzard, Christian Berkel, David Schofield, Kevin McNally, Thomas Kretschmann and Tom Wilkinson. Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander wrote the screenplay.
I might as well get around to it and reveal my opinion of ”VALKYRIE”. In a nutshell . . . I loved it. Which surprised me a great deal. I had expected to like ”VALKYRIE”, considering the cast, the director and the subject matter. Or at least find it interesting. I had no idea that I would end up experiencing a gauntlet of emotions while watching it. Mere curiosity was the only emotion I had felt, while the movie introduced the main characters and revealed the incidents that led to von Stauffenberg’s decision to join the conspiracy against Hitler. By the time the movie focused upon the assassination attempt and the coup against the S.S., I felt myself growing tense with anxiety and anticipation. By the time the conspirators’ plot began to unravel, the tension I felt had been replaced by dread. And when von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were being captured and executed, I watched the scenes unfold with tears in my eyes. Curious, especially since I knew how the story would end.
The excellent performances by the cast turned out to be one of the reasons why ”VALKYRIE” struck such an emotional chord within me. This is also one of the reasons why I like Bryan Singer as a director. He knows how to utilize his cast – whether each performer has a major role or not. And Singer made the best of what proved to be a first-rate cast. I could go into details about every actor or actress in the cast, but I must admit that a handful managed to catch my attention. One member of the cast turned out to be Thomas Kretschmann, who portrayed Major Otto Ernst Remer, head of a Reserve Army battalion. The actor’s sardonic portrayal of Remer amused me to no end. Tom Wilkinson gave a top-notch performance as General Friedrich Fromm, head of Germany's Reserve Army in Berlin. Wilkinson did an excellent job of portraying the treacherous general with a slight touch of sympathy. Another actor that caught my attention was Jamie Parker. He portrayed Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, an adjutant to von Stauffenberg who helped the latter carry out the plot. Parker did a great job in portraying von Haeften’s intense loyalty to von Stauffenberg. In fact, he and Cruise managed to create a strong screen chemistry together. Terence Stamp was excellent as the reserved, yet strong-willed Ludwig Beck, a former Army general whose opposition against Hitler began in the late 1930s and served as the conspirators’ figurehead. Bill Nighy portrayed General Friedrich Olbricht, Chief of the Armed Forces Replacement Office (Wehrersatzamt) at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the original architect of the plan, Operation Valkyrie. It was Olbricht who recruited von Stauffenberg into the conspiracy. For the past five to six years, I have always regarded Nighy as some kind of chameleon. And with his performance, he did an excellent job of revealing at both the vacillating and stalwart sides of Olbricht’s nature.
But the true focus of ”VALKYRIE” was Claus von Stauffenberg and it was Tom Cruise’s job to make this man believable to the audience. Some critics have complained that Cruise had failed to capture the essence of von Stauffenberg’s character as an aristocrat. Many of them blamed this on the actor’s American accent. Personally, I find this criticism to be a load of crap. After all, the 1988 version of ”DANGEROUS LIAISONS” featured American actors portraying French aristocrats . . . with American accents. And I do not recall any complaints about their performances. I especially find the criticisms against Cruise ludicrous, considering that most of the cast featured British actors – using accents from all over the British Isles. What was my view of Cruise’s performance as Claus von Stauffenberg? I thought he was excellent. His portrayal of the German Army officer was that of a hero – and a very stalwart one at that. On the other hand, Cruise also did a first-rate job of capturing von Stauffenberg’s arrogance – a trait that was probably a by-product of his aristocratic background and upbringing. This trait also managed to get the officer into a great deal of trouble even before his participation in the assassination attempt. But . . . most of the critics were too busy being distracted by Cruise’s American accent, while paying scant attention to the British accents of many of the other actors. Go figure.
Anyone familiar with Claus von Stauffenberg or the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler would have known the outcome of the movie’s story. I certainly did. But despite my knowledge of the outcome, I found myself being caught up in the suspense of the story, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher MacQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. I had assumed that most of the story would center on the conspirators’ plotting and set up of the assassination attempt. I had no idea there was more to the story surrounding the incident – namely the coup perpetrated by von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators against Hitler and the S.S. Nor did I have any idea that knowing how the story would end, I would find myself rooting . . . hoping that the conspirators would succeed in their plans. Or escape Hitler’s wrath. The only hiccup in the movie – at least for me – was the introduction of Major General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) into the story. I found it confusing. Was he already part of the conspiracy when von Stauffenberg first approached? Or what? For me, it was only misstep in an otherwise superb script.
With a first-rate cast led by Tom Cruise, along with Christopher MacQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s script, Bryan Singer directed an exciting and suspenseful tale that managed to tap into a great deal of emotions for me. From my personal view, I believe that ”VALKYRIE” proved to be one of the better movies of 2008.