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A Solid Historical Suspense-Thriller

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

On July 20, 1944, the last of 15 assassination plots against Adolf Hitler was put into motion at his heavily fortified retreat outside Berlin, the Wolf’s Lair. A lesser-known World War II incident, organized by disaffected high-ranking German officers to end the war and save Germany from defeat at the hands of the Allies, is the subject for Bryan Singer’s (Superman Returns, X-Men, The Usual Suspects) latest film, Valkyrie. A historical suspense-thriller, the film also represents Tom Cruise’s latest effort to revive his flagging career.

Valkyrie opens in March 1943 as Germany faced the first of several defeats in North Africa. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), considers himself loyal to Germany, but not Adolf Hitler or the Nazi regime. Voicing his objections or even his concerns about military tactics used in North Africa, however, would immediately lead to his dismissal, charges of treason and, of course, his death. After being seriously injured in an Allied attack (he loses an eye, a hand and two fingers on his other hand), Stauffenberg recovers in a German army hospital. Rather than return to the front lines, his superiors assign Stauffenberg to the War Ministry in Berlin. There, his superior officer, General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), recruits him into an assassination plot that includes other German officers, business leaders, and politicians.

When the German high command exiles another co-conspirator, Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), to the Eastern Front, Stauffenberg takes the lead in the assassination plot, recruiting another general, Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard), and attempting to convince the general in charge of the Reserve Army in Berlin, Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), to join them or to let the plot unfold without interruption. The plan involves changing the secret orders or plan, “Valkyrie", for a successor government in the event of Hitler’s death. The revised plan will exclude the SS and the Gestapo from the successor government and leave the German military in complete command.

Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Singer’s collaborator on The Usual Suspects, and Nathan Alexander, Valkyrie builds toward the attempted assassination plot and the immediate aftermath. Dramatic irony (i.e. the audience knowing more than the characters in the film) helps make the characters and the plot more root-worthy, but it also creates tension, suspense, and, just as importantly, disappointment. Not surprisingly, Singer’s unobtrusive direction, which relies on smooth tracking shots and cranes during the build-up to the attempt and tight-in, handheld cameras for the aftermath, works to complement McQuarrie and Alexander’s screenplay rather than overwhelm it with unnecessary stylistic tics or glosses.

While Cruise has more range as an actor than many critics seem to realize, his range doesn’t really extend to “period” acting. In his acting style, his mannerisms, his accent, and his line deliveries, Tom Cruise is a modern actor. Singer was smart enough, however, to dispense with inauthentic-sounding German accents and allow his actors to find a comfort zone in delivering their lines (most actors are British, some German, with Cruise the notable exception). The mix and match of accents can be distracting, at least at first, but becomes less of a concern as the plot to kill Hitler goes into motion. Valkyrie also benefits from its British and some German cast, who, to be thankful, leave any campiness out of their performances (a problem where Germans during the Nazi period are involved).

Unfortunately, Valkyrie lacks the moral complexity, non-reductive take on the July 20th plot, or the high-caliber performances that would make it an Oscar contender in the usual year-end categories (e.g. Best Picture, Best Director, Original Screenplay, Best Actor, or Best Supporting Actor). At best, Valkyrie will receive nominations for production design, costumes, and cinematography. The film may not even revive Cruise’s flagging career (his last commercial hit, Mission Impossible III, was released two and a half years ago), but it’s also not the failure many of Cruises’ critics anticipated.