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If You're Going to Try to Kill the King

Valkyrie (2008)

United Artists

Given the avalanche of negative publicity that’s befallen “Valkyrie,” from the German government’s early refusal to let Bryan Singer shoot at his desired locations to the squabbling over the release date and the media’s oppressive scrutinizing of Tom Cruise’s personal life, it feels like the movie’s been in release for years. Getting to finally see it, then, becomes one of those much anticipated Holy Grail moments wherein one gets to ascertain precisely what the great big fuss has been about.

Within the picture’s opening scenes, what becomes clearest is what it is not. Although the movie stars Mr. Cruise and a host of other quality actors in supporting parts, it’s not really a character study. Working from an efficient screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, Mr. Singer delves right into the meat of the story, briskly announcing his intentions. This will be a straightforward suspense thriller about the planning and carrying out of an assassination, not one particularly grounded in the specificity of the milieu, the highest ranks of the Nazi government in the latter stages of WWII.

The movie begins by depicting the nascent stages of the most famous of the plans to assassinate Hitler, spearheaded by Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Mr. Cruise) and fellow military officers. It traces the complicated machinations therein, and sufficiently stresses the sheer brazen willpower required to carry it out. The filmmaker effectively drives home the vast scope of the conspiracy by introducing and cutting between an enormously collection of characters.

Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography emphasizes the stunning odds they faced by preserving the grand spectacle that was the Third Reich, with its penchant for grandiose imperialistic architecture and propagandistic shows of force. At the same time, Mr. Singer’s unafraid to get small. He devotes significant time to the nuts and bolts, backroom plotting and engineering required to pull off such an unlikely feat.

The filmmaker keeps things moving at an escalated clip; the cross-cutting between the multitude of figures at play gains speed and intensity as the film progresses. The movie is justifiably plot oriented, as it needs to cram a lot of details into its two hours. In spite of that, it never feels weighted down or overwrought.

That prevailing focus makes it possible to ignore the fact that Mr. Cruise is never really convincing as von Stauffenberg, hampered by his American accent and general stiffness. He just blends right in, swept away by the ever advancing tide of the journey at hand. His co-stars, including Terrence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson fare better, largely because they’re far more effortlessly naturalistic.

“Valkyrie” is not, as it might have first seemed, a provocation of any kind. It does not inspire much deep reconsideration of the widespread German culpability in the events of the Holocaust, even though it shows us dozens of men committed to stopping it. That’s because human and historical matters seem to be at best tangential concerns for Mr. Singer and his writers. They want the movie to serve as a pure genre piece, a sample of old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment brought to the 21st century. To that end they’ve succeeded, though the story of Col. von Stauffenberg and the 20 July plot really amounts to so much more.


Opens on Dec. 25 in the United States and on Jan. 23, 2009 in Britain.

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman; music by Mr. Ottman; production designers, Lilly Kilvert and Patrick Lumb; produced by Mr. Singer, Mr. McQuarrie and Gilbert Adler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. Running time: 2 hours. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Tom Cruise (Col. Claus von Stauffenberg), Kenneth Branagh (Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow), Bill Nighy (Gen. Friedrich Olbricht), Tom Wilkinson (Gen. Friedrich Fromm), Carice van Houten (Nina von Stauffenberg), Thomas Kretschmann (Maj. Otto Ernst Remer), Terence Stamp (Gen. Ludwig Beck), Eddie Izzard (Gen. Erich Fellgiebel), David Bamber (Adolf Hitler) and Tom Hollander (Col. Heinz Brandt).


This is a good story. Always have trouble with these history movies because we know how it ends. But, this story has a lot of suspense and intrigue.

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