Sunday, December 28, 2008

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.


Max B. said...

"...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."

not much in the way of competition there. i haven't seen seven pounds, but quantum of solace was gibberish. the script read like a collaboration between half-a-dozen crazy homeless guys. although for paul haggis that's an improvement.

"frost/nixon" isn't bad, although it's definitely worse than the play, so i would only recommend it to those who haven't seen the original. given the strength of cast and script, ron howard could only foul it up so much; unfortunately, he fouls it up that much.

Max B. said...

"doubt" is also good but worse than the play, but worth seeing if you've seen the play just because meryl and phil are worth seeing in almost anything.

Nathan Empsall said...

I've never been to NYC or to LA proper, so when the question is "Has Nathan seen the play," the answer is sadly almost always no.

James said...

I haven't seen the film nor shall I. So, it's interesting to read your review, Nathan.

A history college of mine saw the film and said it's about 15 percent historically accurate and that "the Scientologist's" role is grossly exaggerated. What else is new. His opinion was "another film to carefully chosen by the megalomaniac self promoting fifth-rate actor to show how great he is and if facts have to be manipulated to show that greatness, let's do it."

Jordan said...

I believe I gave it 3.5 or 4 out of 5 here on Flixter/Facebook for the same reasons you state here. It was a great movie and I never got the lassoed feeling. Probably because I knew much of the backstory on this beforehand. The variation among accents didn't bother me (and I hardly noticed). On that note I really appreciated the transition from German to English in the beginning that completed the whole setup for the actors to speak in English.

Overall I agree a good movie, but it was clear the makers weren't gunning for any Oscars.

Jordan said...

And as for the 15 percent accurate bit, it's a movie:

"[Valkyrie] gives a fundamentally accurate portrait of Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators. There are details which must be counted as liberties. But, fundamentally, the film is decent, respectful and represents the spirit of the conspiracy."
--Peter Hoffmann, professor of history at McGill University and a leading authority on the German Resistance

Nathan Empsall said...

James' learned friend vs. a Very Important Professor - I'm not getting involved. I do know that the writer says they didn't consult any experts to make sure they got it right, but they argue over contextual accuracy (making sure the slang was period-correct, etc). What I will say re: accuracy is that "it's a movie" is no excuse. If you're going to depict true events, then depict true events. Far too many people learn their facts only from the movies, and while you can say that's their fault, not the directors', it still has an aggregate effect on society and directors know it.

Jordan said...

I blame society for its own stupidity; not the few geniuses among us smart enough to make a profit off of it.

It's a movie is an incredibly valid excuse as it's just entertainment if people quote it as fact then they're only fooling those who trust these people's opinions. Extreme factual accuracy in historical films is highly overrated.

Nathan Empsall said...

It's not their fault, no, but they chose to make it worse. Anyone who values profit above putting their foot on society's brake is a cretin, not a genius. If someone wants to make a fictional WWII movie, cool. If someone wants to set fictionial characters against a real backdrop - say, make up a storyline at the Battle of the Bulge - cool. If someone wants to tell a true story but needs to make some slight embellishments to make it screenable, understandable. But if someone wants to warp history, they can stick where the sun don't shine.

Jordan said...

No one has ever claimed, to my knowledge, that the creators of 'Valkyrie' "warped history."

Nathan Empsall said...

I'm not talking about Valkyrie. I know squat about the German Resistance so can't analyze its accurateness. I'm speaking to historical accuracy in movies in general, something you were dismissing in general.