It’s difficult to examine Bryan Singer’s World War Two thriller Valkyrie without placing actor Tom Cruise, and the entire mechanism of the Hollywood star system, under the microscope. Originally conceived as a lower budget, altogether smaller piece of cinema, Cruise’s involvement changed many aspects of the film’s development – most pointedly its budget. In the final analysis, he sits rather awkwardly in the film – the glazed fruit on a savory dish, the attraction rather than the meal itself.
But there’s a great feast to have here beyond the star. Singer (who made Superman Returns and X-Men 2) understands how to build the pace and maintain the dramatic tension of this story – one that has an ending we must all know. He surrounds Cruise with the cream of Britain’s senior male actors – Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp – and focuses the piece as a racy thriller rather than probing the trickier political and psychological issues that would have perhaps exposed Cruise’s limitations as performer. It’s a great political war story, brought beautifully – if not a little self-consciously – to the screen.
Cruise is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, war hero and true believer in a noble Germany. Dismayed by Adolf Hitler’s leadership and the obvious decline in Germany’s fortunes against the Allies, he joins forces with Generals Olbricht (Bill Nighy) von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) and Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) in a political and military plot to assassinate the Fuhrer, dismantle the SS, and start negotiating to save Germany from total destruction. The story follows the delicate political maneuvering that has to take place in order to get Operation Valkyrie underway, and then its aftermath, a tortuously short moment in time when no one involved was sure which way history was to play out. In the heat of the operation – a coup by any other name – a German communications Sergeant comments to a superior officer that “when this thing’s over we better make sure we’re on the right side.” This is the real drama of the piece – both at the level of the individuals involved – with the lives of their families and selves at stake – and for the German nation as a whole. Singer flirts with these moments – and they’re the best written parts of the film, but he keeps moving on – building the tension and over-idealising Von Staffenburg – or perhaps the bankable star Tom Cruise – as noble but wooden hero.
The production design – thanks to the additional budget – is flawless, mainly shot on location in Germany, and Newton Sigel’s cinematography helps to create an elegant historical sensibility.