Screenwriters: Christopher McQuarrie, Nathan Alexander
Starring: Tom Cruise, Carice Van Houten, Bill Nighy
Running time: 120 mins
In this polished World War II thriller, Tom Cruise gives up the Hollywood smile, his left eye and his right arm to play a rebel soldier in Hitler's army. Regardless of those various handicaps, it's not a huge stretch for the star who's played the forthright action-man before in films like Minority Report and the Mission: Impossible franchise. Through the lens of The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, real-life hero Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg ranks alongside those men. That might be doing him a slight disservice, but his story does make for a ripping good caper nonetheless.
Stauffenberg is earnest in his intentions even if the film is not. He makes clear his disgust with Hitler early on in the midst of a losing campaign against the Allies in North Africa. In a letter home, he makes reference to the wider atrocities committed by the Reich, regarding these as "a stain on the honour of the German army". Then after being maimed in an aerial attack, he returns home to pick up a medal and spearhead Operation Valkyrie, a coup conspiracy against der Führer. It isn't a snap decision, but Singer doesn't hang around to weigh up the moral dilemma; after all, Stauffenberg isn't just risking his own life but that of his wife and children as well.
Clearly, Singer is in a hurry to get to the cloak-and-dagger stuff and that is where he excels. The air almost literally crackles with tension as, initially, attempts are made to smuggle high-explosives through official lines and Stauffenberg quietly negotiates his way into Hitler's inner sanctum. He's helped to that end by Bill Nighy on fine form as General Olbricht; either schmoozing potential recruits or squirming in his seat as he waits for the order to send the Reserve Army marching on Berlin. In a sterling lineup of British supporting players (featuring Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Izzard), Tom Wilkinson shines as General Fromm. He's a careerist who stands to benefit from Hitler's assassination, but a cowardly streak keeps him hedging his bets.
All the underlying political tensions between the men bring suspense and urgency to a series of backroom meetings, a few that include the unwitting Führer himself (played by British theatre stalwart David Bamber). Following in a tradition of Hitchcockian potboilers and '70s conspiracy thrillers, the excitement comes in loaded exchanges of dialogue rather than big explosions - although there are a couple of those as well. Singer amps up the danger with expert use of sound and imagery; for instance, a pool of typists that becomes a salvo of machinegun fire, or just a quiet pause drawn out to devastating effect.
The endgame is not quite so nerve-shredding since history tells us that Valkyrie, in July 1944, was unsuccessful. Singer relies on Cruise to emote the tragedy of his own bleary-eyed defiance; fortunately he's well-rehearsed in that (ref. War Of The Worlds and Born On The Fourth Of July). And even in an eye-patch, he exudes the kind of charisma that would have been needed to front this grand-scale betrayal of Hitler. But Stauffenberg's last act isn't as emotionally rousing as it could be because Singer fails to drive home the personal cost of his high ideals. It is the major flaw of the film, reducing Stauffenberg to a simple figurehead, albeit with a rarely seen perspective on World War II. That's what keeps Valkyrie from breaking the ranks of A-grade thriller to achieve landmark status. Expect thrills, not a revolution.
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