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Dustin Putman

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Valkyrie  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Bryan Singer.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Kevin McNally, Christian Berkel, David Bamber.
2008 – 120 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and brief strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 17, 2008.
Part historical reenactment, part technical exercise, "Valkyrie" is so stringent and single-minded in its storytelling that it threatens to suffocate all involved. The July 20, 1944 attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler at the hands of his own fed-up army officers didn't go off without a hitch—many people, in fact, died as a result of the failed conspiracy. Because of this, there is no real payoff to the tale, and the only point in making the film is to shed light on the bravery of Germans who risked their lives and stood up for their own beliefs as they tried to turn around a fascist government.

The central hero of the piece is Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), a World War II colonel who is injured in a Tunisian air attack and returns to his family in Germany. It is here that he teams up with Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) to lead a resistance again Adolf Hitler (David Bamber) and his Reich. The plan, labeled Operation Valkyrie and signed by an unsuspecting Hitler, would implement a government-in-waiting in the event of the leader's passing. What Hitler did not know was that said government would take control of the country for the purpose of making peace with the allies. Ultimately, Hitler would survive the bombing attempt on his life, and those responsible for turning their back on him would be executed.

"If I die now, I'll leave my children nothing but shame," Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg laments early on in "Valkyrie." This line of dialogue is just one of many examples in a lazy screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander that tells rather than shows what the characters are thinking. With precious little development or emotional connection for the people onscreen, the viewer is asked to follow fictional representations of real-life figures who never come alive or feel fully fleshed out. Quick scenes with Claus, wife Nina (Carice van Houten), and their children only serve to show that he has a family. Otherwise, they are strictly perfunctory and uninspired. When the complex plan to assassinate Hitler gets underway, intermittent intrigue eventually gives way to a predictable and stodgy point-A-to-point-B narrative. Thriller and action elements are low-scale and unsuccessful.

For his part as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an eye patch-wearing Tom Cruise (2007's "Lions for Lambs") doesn't bother trying to speak with a German accent, and it is just as well. There is no major issue with Cruise's performance, except to say that this is not one of his more memorable roles and all he is asked to do is look gravely serious at all times. The same case could be made for the rest of the cast, although Tom Wilkinson (2007's "Michael Clayton") does manage to stand out as General Friedrich Fromm, who secretly knows what Claus is up to but will only agree to stand behind them if they pull off their mission. Stuck between his loyalties with the Reich and what he knows to be right, Wilkinson gives Fromm an interesting extra layer that the other characters lack.

The final ten minutes of "Valkyrie" are effective if obligatory, as Operation Valkyrie unravels and Claus and his men are faced with certain death. A postscript explaining that Hitler committed suicide six months later softens the blow, but one can't help but watch the picture and question just what it all adds up to (answer: not much). In need of a larger scope to portray exactly what it was Stauffenberg was fighting for—director Bryan Singer (2006's "Superman Returns") assumes the audience is already well-informed of the atrocities that occurred during Hitler's reign—"Valkyrie" is little more than a sketchy and narrow history lesson with less impact than it should have.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman