Three Stars for “Valkyrie”
The new Tom Cruise World War II movie, “Valkyrie,” has gotten mixed reviews. Some critics say it’s a good film that overcomes its flaws, others that it’s a pointless movie with a flat performance from Cruise. To be sure, the trailer and poster are pretty awful. I braved it last night only because of its interesting premise, and was pleasantly surprised. While I wouldn’t say the film is Oscar-worthy, it’s certainly worth the student price of admission, and I give it three out of four stars.
Writer Christopher McQuarrie says he and director Bryan Singer aren’t gunning for an Oscar and just wanted to make a fun thriller. In that, they succeeded. Asks McQuarrie, "What more do you need than a bunch of Germans trying to kill Hitler?" Apparently not much. Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, who joins a group of high-ranking German officers in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler, subdue the SS, take over the German government, and negotiate a truce with the Allies. (Read about the true historical story at Wikipedia.) Cruise’s performance wasn’t great, but it was good. In the trailers his acting looks overly dramatic and his eye patch ridiculous, but he’s actually quite believable. No, he doesn’t get lost in his character and you never forget you’re watching an actor, but I’m not going to pan a film just because its cast isn't transcendent. Good isn’t bad just because it’s not great; it’s still good. I think the critics who have given Cruise's performance negative reviews either came in looking for a reason to pan him or just couldn't get the taste of the awful publicity campaign out of their mouths.
What impressed me most about the film was that it kept the viewer in suspense for the entire second half, which isn’t easy to do. The plot is a bit like “Titanic” – what’s the point of the movie when we already know the ending? The boat sinks! One could easily ask a similar question of “Valkyrie” – what’s the point of the movie when we already know how the assassination attempt ends? It fails and Hitler offs himself ten months later! Yet “Valkyrie” overcomes this trap and builds to not just a compelling climax but a suspenseful one. It also answers the similar question, why make a movie about a failed attempt? At one point, Cruise’s von Stauffenberg says something to the effect of wanting the rest of the world to know that not all Germans were like Hitler, that there were good people as well. The movie ends with a quote from a Berlin memorial to the would-be-assassins that says there story is worth telling – and it is.
This is not to say that the movie is perfect; I have at least three complaints. One, there wasn’t much in the way of character development – we got to know a little about Col. von Stauffenberg and Gen. Friedrich Fromm, but no one else. Two, the first half hour or so was very choppy. The story moved along very quickly without much real development; it felt like the viewer had been lassoed and was being dragged along over some very rough and bumpy spots. Fortunately, things got much better after that first half hour. Three, and this is a common complaint about the movie, there was no consistency to the accents. All the characters were German and the movie was shot in English, but some of the Germans spoke with a German accent, others British, and others American. I wouldn’t have minded the British or American accents if only they were consistent – speak whatever accent you want, just have everyone speak it. My friend Oliver observed that, for the most part, the bad Germans (Hitler’s inner circle and the like) had the German accents and the good Germans (the would-be-assassins) had the British and American accents. Propaganda, literary device, or coincidence? You decide.
Obviously, all three of these shortcomings are the fault of director Singer and writer McQuarrie, not of the more high-profile Cruise. Still, I applaud all three. It’s rare for a modern blockbuster to provoke stimulating intellectual discussions, but after the movie I went to Denny’s with my friends Josi and Oliver and we had a lengthy, stimulating conversation about the meaning of personal honor, as prompted by the one of the characters’ suicide. I thought we'd be more likely to discuss that great classic moral quandry, "If you time-traveled and had the chance, would you kill Hitler?" but all of us were fairly quick to similar answers.
I’m still hoping to see “Doubt,” “Frost/Nixon,” and maybe “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” but of the three movies I have seen so far this holiday season – “Quantum of Solace” (James Bond), “Seven Pounds” (Will Smith), and “Valkyrie,” “Valkyrie” is the best. It was a nice surprise, and I recommend it. Three out of four stars.