Context, context, context. Without it why bother? Director Bryan Singer’s (X-Men, Superman Returns, The Usual Suspects) plot-to-kill-Hitler thriller is cool, efficient and well-made but devoid of characters we care about, historical perspective, thematic resonance or psychological insight. In other words, it’s a mission without a mission. And while there’s no sin in wanting to create a movie that simply entertains, the audience should still be invested in the outcome.
In the waning days of World War II, a group of German officers (Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard and a weirdly wasted Kenneth Branagh) come together to assassinate Adolf Hitler and assume control of the government. The chief architect of the plot is Claus von Stauffenberg, a one-eyed, one-handed colonel who daringly uses Der Führer’s own paranoid bureaucracy against itself.
Though history spoils the punchline, it’s to Singer’s credit that we’re engaged by the machinations of the men’s scheme. With Hitchcock-like precision, he stages the assassination attempt like a caper, building up a decent amount of suspense — regardless that we know the ending. Still, it’s not terribly clever, and the inevitability of its failure limits our investment. One must wonder how effective the movie might’ve been if Singer had escalated our expectations, demonstrating time and again how the conspirators overcame insurmountable obstacles under hair-splitting circumstance only to be undone by an unfortunate twist of fate.
While the film’s flaws are fairly obvious, they become abundantly clear in the final act as the traitorous generals attempt to secure their coup, unaware that the assassination has failed. As their brilliantly conceived plan crumbles we find ourselves caring less about the outcome because screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander have invested so much attention on process that they’ve forgotten the people. Despite Valkyrie’s prestigious cast, the renegade Nazis are little more than chess pieces pushed around a celluloid board. You may leave the theater impressed by how close their plan came to succeeding, but you’ll have no idea who they were or what motivated them. Oh, sure, we all wish Tom Cruise’s conspiracy had succeeded in eliminating history’s most nefarious villain, but beyond that generalization, Singer and company fail to emotionally connect us to a single character. Live or die, after nearly two hours they are as anonymous as the opening credits.
Talk was that Valkyrie would be Tom Cruise’s comeback, and his performance sure is, well, steely. In fact, as Stauffenberg he’s the man of a thousand steely faces. He’s confident, certain, unshakably sure of himself and, just when things look like they couldn’t get any worse, implacably resolute. It’s a monumentally boring performance that gets no assistance from the script. Stauffenberg’s written as a colorless man with no discernible character arc. He states from the opening scene that he would like to kill Hitler and never deviates or reconsiders that position.
The supporting characters don’t fare much better, but at least the veteran cast is able to inject a little doubt and confusion into the proceedings, creating the illusion of depth and complexity. Unfortunately, only Tom Wilkinson’s ambivalent careerist general is memorable after the final credits have rolled.
Believe it or not, there’s a precedent for the type of movie Valkyrie aspires to be. Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 thriller Day of the Jackal charted the failed attempt to murder French President Charles De Gaulle from the point of view of the assassin. Using a documentary-like approach, Zinnemann created both immediacy and urgency, carefully building his suspense toward an ironic payoff.
Singer, in contrast, has mounted a slick, high-gloss Hollywood product that ignores the psychology, politics and personalities behind this historically fascinating act of rebellion. It’s serious without any insight and suspenseful without any real stakes. For all its shallowness, it might as well be another X-Men movie — only a lot less fun.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].