Tom Cruise and an awesome supporting cast can’t quite lift Bryan Singer’s suspenser above mediocre.
Valkyrie is a movie that tempts you to think more of it than it deserves. Handsomely shot in precise but non-obtrusive period detail, deliberately and intelligently structured with fine performances all around, the entire production seems worthy of its compelling subject matter. So why isn’t it better than just good?
A few critics have already commented that Tom Cruise’s outsized screen persona dominates the film, so that the character of Nazi Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg disappears inside the audience’s expectations of what happens in a Tom Cruise movie. To a point, that’s a fair criticism: following the Cruise film formula (explained in greater detail in our Valkyrie preview), Stauffenberg is a star in his chosen profession (in this case killing Allied soldiers) until something happens that sends his life spiraling out of his control. Valkyrie breaks ranks in that his change of heart is only the beginning of his character’s arc.
After getting seriously wounded on the North African front, Stauffenberg is sent to Berlin to convalesce. There, he’s recruited into a cabal of Nazi military officers determined to assassinate German prime minister Adolf Hitler in the hopes of saving lives and ameliorating German shame in the eyes of the world. One of the more surprising twists in the film is the reality of the group’s ambition: killing Hitler in 1944 and suing the Allies for peace seems, in the cast’s capable hands, completely within reach. But, and in staying true to the real-life story, small indecisions and mundane twists of fate such as shifts in local weather and short-sighted decisions combined to undermine their efforts.
Director Bryan Singer wisely stages the ill-fated assassination attempt as a set piece that centers the whole film. Stauffenberg manages to place a bomb beneath a table where Hitler meets with his staff to discuss the collapsing Eastern Front. Though the bomb detonates, the Fuhrer escapes the blast with only minor injuries. The cabal’s plan goes on as planned, however, using a civil defense program to briefly overthrow the Nazi regime and corral the SS secret police. Perhaps unwiesely, most of the film’s final third or so details the insurrection’s demise and fall, paced in a way that invites sympathy for the conspirators but whose mounting tension feels oddly winded. Despite the lived-in performances of the ace supporting cast – Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, among others – there is seldom a sense that the events are bearing down upon the characters.
This comes largely from a problem with pacing: the scenes in which the coup unravels should be the stuff of nailbiting tension, but Singer chooses to almost only show Cruise talking on the phone a lot and a somewhat anonymous looking group of Nazi militiamen assembled in a square. Surely, there was more to a Nazi Berlin swallowed by an insurrectionist crisis than that. There are glimmers of promise, as when a militia soldier arrives to arrest Dr. Joseph Goebbels. The mad doctor already has the cyanide capsule in his mouth as the militia officer is told to stand down, via a telephone call from no less than Hitler himself. The film stops and lets the suspense speak for itself. More such moments would have immensely helped move the film along.
That lack of focus is symptomatic of the problems that ultimately drag the film down. There’s an indifference to the events, an apathy present both in Singer’s direction and in Christopher McQuarrie’s script, that leaves any lasting sense of meaning absent. As with the similarly underwhelming The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, events and scenes seem put together with no real sense of architecture, so that the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts in both movies. And for the events depicted here, some sense of import should arrive only as a matter of course. That they’re nonetheless absent can often try the viewer’s patience.
Cruise brings exactly the same level of intensity to the part of the doomed, honorable Stauffenberg that he’s brought to every one of his films since Jerry Maguire. Like popcorn or Junior Mints from the snack bar, he’s a rigidly dependable theatrical commodity. It’s become somewhat fashionable to lambast the man, and quite a bit of that ridicule is righteous backlash. But his performance should really be almost ancillary to the opportunity to witness the broad and accomplished supporting players take on such weighty, potentially epic subject matter. If only that were the case. This being a Tom Cruise Movie, they’re never given free room to work; Branagh especially is noticeably absent for much of the film’s narrative. On the other hand, Cruise’s involvement is likely the difference in budget and production scale between the film as it is and a critically-acclaimed and little-watched HBO original movie.
Which perhaps it should have been in the first place, in that its shortcomings of plot and tension would be more readily excused or its dragging pace easier to overlook. Disappointing for its faults and maddening for its potential, Valkyrie emerges at last as neither a great film nor a terrible one. If it disappoints, to see such a fascinating story presented capably at all is almost compensation enough for its ultimate collapse. And of course, there’s Cruise. Come for the movie star, stay for the history.