Thursday, July 7, 2011

Valkyrie (2008)


- Bryan Singer is a fairly good director and his great attempts (The Usual Suspects (1995), the "House M.D." pilot) do overshadow his mediocre-to-bad attempts (the X-Men films, Superman Returns (2006)).... So one naturally anticipates his latest big-screen releases. 

Singer's 2008 World War II thriller, Valkyrie, is based on the true story of "Operation Valkyrie" (the plot to kill Adolf Hitler lead by German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg) and follows historical fact closer than one expects a Hollywood film would.

The GERMAN Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is portrayed in the film by none other than.... Tom Cruise (?). Of course, this is one of the film's biggest problems. Nope, I have no bone to pick with Cruise's religion, his stunts on Oprah, or anything else like that - Cruise is simply being Cruise in Valkyrie and that is not a good thing. Does Cruise give a bad performance in the film? No. Cruise is not embarrassingly awful at delivering lines or conveying emotion but he does harm the film by playing a character that is far more recognizably Tom Cruise than Claus von Stauffenberg.

Cruise's celebrity simply gets in the way of his character. At no point in the film do you think of Cruise as von Stauffenberg - you think to yourself, "Oh, there goes Tom Cruise to meet with Hitler - Wow, that Tom Cruise sure can yell real loud - Hey, there's Tom Cruise shaving!" The story stars von Stauffenberg and not Tom Cruise, yet it is the latter that one sees on screen. Subsequently, Valkyrie feels more like a story of Cruise vs. Hitler rather than a great story about "Operation Valkyrie" and this direction takes all of the power and poignancy out of the film that otherwise could have strongly existed. I am thinking that Cruise, Singer, and the casting directors should have listened to Claus von Stauffenberg's son when he told Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that Cruise "should keep his hands off my father."

The rest of the cast members are far better in their roles: Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Christian Berkel, David Bamber, and especially Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nighy give very good supporting performances. Although, one will notice on any of the hundreds of copies of any one of the film's trailers that no one except the German actors speak with a German accent. 21st Century English-speaking audiences have come to expect that actors will speak with an accent if their character is of a different nationality. However, in Valkyrie, the American Tom Cruise sounds like an American von Stauffenberg, the British Kenneth Branagh sounds like a British Henning von Tresckow, and the German Thomas Kretschmann sounds like a.... German Otto Ernst Remer (OK that one works). The film actually opens with everyone speaking German but the dialogue quickly morphs into English. Obviously Singer was trying to make the audience to buy into the accents but it does not really work. Unfortunately, the fact that the entire German army is made up of Brits and Yanks distracts - not enough to hurt anyone's performances but enough to not feel quite right.

While an entertaining enough wartime thriller thanks to the good performances from the supporting cast and a fistful of thrilling scenes, Valkyrie is, for the most part, not a great movie. Take your pick from the plethora of World War II films in the archives of history; there are countless World War II films that are far more entertaining and well-made than Valkyrie. This silver screen depiction of the naturally thrilling and interesting German plot to kill Hitler undoubtedly has merit. However, the film does lacks thrills (the suspense works here and there rather than every time), mystery (hey, it is always going to be a gamble when you make a film that everyone knows the ending to), and a great lead (but here again this is what you get when you cast mega-super star Tom Cruise as a German military man). Unfortunately, Singer cannot add his 2008 WWII thriller Valkyrie to the list of his great attempts.

Valkyrie disappoints in a lot of areas but what the film does do exceptionally well is paint an honest portrayal of the German people in a World War II film. Too often in film stretching back for decades the Germans are treated as all-out villains in World War II films with little humanity. While the fact that the Germans did start and prolong World War II which resulted in the killing of millions is undeniable, the Germans were still people and many were not gun-ho about the war. Valkyrie shows that not every German was Hitler's lap dog, not every German relished the killing of Jews, and not every German wanted a war in the first place. The characters in the film may seem out of place due to the accents and overpowering celebrity statuses but they all feel like genuine people trying to do what is right. Credit Sing and company for handling this aspect so well.

CBC Rating: 6/10

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