By Sean O'Connell
Because nothing says "Happy birthday, baby Jesus" like Nazis plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler, United Artists has gift-wrapped Valkyrie and placed it beneath your cinematic Christmas tree.
It wasn't always on the studio's holiday wish list, though. Valkyrie has had more potential dates than a sorority girl during post-production, and UA nabbed headlines as it searched -- endlessly -- for the ideal opening weekend. Such drastic schedule shifts usually suggest a film with serious issues, but fortunately that's not the case with Valkyrie. Director Bryan Singer has made a riveting military drama, a popcorn thriller masquerading as a political potboiler. But he also saddled his studio with a tough film to market.
Start with the face of Singer's picture, which is partially obstructed. Tom Cruise plays a high-ranking officer in Hitler's regime and the driving force behind a factual plot to kill the Führer, sporting an eye patch thanks to injuries his character sustains in an early battle. Then there's the fact that, as any junior high student will be able to tell you, the intricate plot at the center of Valkyrie is destined to fail. Singer can't squeeze tension from a "Will they succeed?" scenario. So he wisely opts for a "How do things go so terribly wrong?" one instead.
Cruise gives perhaps his lowest-key performance ever as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a proud German military officer whose patriotism puts him at odds with Hitler's inhumane practices. After being physically (and emotionally) wounded on an African battlefield, Stauffenberg receives a promotion to Hitler's inner circle -- and is immediately approached by a band of dissenters planning a coup to dethrone the leader of the Nazi party.
Their mission is Operation Valkyrie, an order that would mobilize Hitler's reserve forces if Allied troops infiltrate Germany. General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) and Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) view Valkyrie as a means for Germany to both protect Europe and save face with the Allies. But a fed-up Stauffenberg tacks on an amendment to the order. Before Valkyrie can begin, Hitler's life must be ended.
Valkyrie does start slow. Singer takes his time to properly lay a foundation, introduce key characters, and establish potential roadblocks. Tom Wilkinson is particularly convincing as a paranoid Nazi superior who could assist Stauffenberg but would never speak out against the Führer.
The film takes flight, however, once Stauffenberg greenlights the plan -- even though all of the elements for success might not be in place. Singer mounts an impressive campaign, recreating Hitler's Berlin (and outlying areas) as he tears it down from within. He lifts a few of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite tricks to drum up tensions, and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander connect Valkyrie to our current conflict in the Middle East as they establish the frustrations felt by German loyalists carrying out the orders of a delusional leader.
That might be reading too deep into the material. But it proves there are layers to Valkyrie beyond the surface thrills.
Katie should have said no to the Red Ryder BB gun.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Thursday 25th December 2008
Box Office Worldwide: $200.3M
Production compaines: United Artists, Bad Hat Harry Productions, Achte Babelsberg Film, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 62%
Fresh: 120 Rotten: 74
Cast & Crew
Starring: Tom Cruise as Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, Carice van Houten as Nina Schenk Gräfin von Stauffenberg, Kenneth Branagh as Henning von Tresckow, Eddie Izzard as Erich Fellgiebel, Bill Nighy as Friedrich Olbricht, Tom Wilkinson as Friedrich Fromm, David Bamber as Adolf Hitler, Thomas Kretschmann as Otto Ernst Remer, David Schofield as Erwin von Witzleben, Kevin McNally as Carl-Friedrich Goerdeler, Christian Berkel as Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim, Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg as Hermann Göring, Matthias Freihof as Heinrich Himmler, Halina Reijn as Margarethe Van Oven, Manfred-Anton Algrang as Albert Speer, Werner Daehn as Ernst-John Von Freyend, Matthias Schweighöfer as SS-Soldat im Erschießungskommando, Andy Gatjen as SS-Soldat, Christopher Karl Hemeyer as SS-Major, Philipp von Schulthess as SS-Adjutant von Henning von Tresckow, Jamie Parker as Werner von Haeften, Terence Stamp as Ludwig Beck, Karl Alexander Seidel as Berthold Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, Justus Kammerer as Heimeran Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, Frank Christian Marx as Thomas Arnold, Florian Panzner as Leutnant Hans Wilhelm Hagen