The best thing about the World War II thriller Valkyrie is that audiences can finally see it. Since its inception, the showbiz bloggerati have been beside themselves over Tom Cruise wearing an eye patch and a German army uniform in a docudrama about a decorated officer who spearheads an attempt to kill Hitler. It's a relief to view Valkyrie on its own merits, rather than as a vehicle for celebrity snark.
It's admittedly odd to see Cruise, who plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, speaking English with an American accent alongside British actors such as Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp and the underused Kenneth Branagh, who play his German accomplices. As Hitler's regime faces defeat in World War II, von Stauffenberg and other "good" German soldiers resolve to overthrow Hitler and save "sacred Germany" from its government's evils.
The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer generates some suspense through the conspirators' justifiable paranoia: Who can they trust? Do other Nazis suspect their true intentions, and will they turn them in? Tom Wilkinson provides a memorable turn as a shifty, temperamental fence sitter whose loyalties are difficult to gauge. Plus, as if assassinating Hitler weren't difficult enough, von Stauffenberg and company realize that they also have to cut off the SS government, and in effect stage a coup d'etat. Valkyrie unfolds like an extremely downbeat version of a vintage World War II caper flick. The film features intriguing sequences of von Stauffenberg and his cohorts planning their schemes and frantically adjusting to the unexpected: You could call it Das Mission Impossible.
Valkyrie's major limitation is that it takes on serious themes about the moral responsibilities of soldiers and citizens, yet the roles prove fairly one dimensional, particularly David Bamber's brief turn as Hitler. The characters don't stand out as individuals so much as collectively represent the German resistance. German actor Christian Berkel, who plays one of von Stauffenberg's right hand men, also starred in the brilliant 2004 film Downfall. That recent classic dramatized Hitler's bunker and the Reich's last days. Though Downfall's characters were far more morally compromised, they deeply engaged the audience because they were much more fleshed out. Valkyrie makes a bold attempt to honor the memory of the real von Stauffenberg and his allies, but its execution proves surprisingly bloodless, regardless of what its leading man happens to be wearing.
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