All I wanted for Christmas was what Mr. Cruise promised. Of Valkyrie he said, “This isn’t a WW2 movie. This is a conspiracy thriller set in the War.” Like probably most of the audience, that was the hook that got me into the seat. Little did I know that based on the true story as it was, there was little chance that Valkyrie was going to be as much thriller and as little history as Tommy Boy promised. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against history. In fact, I studied History in university and this movie’s premise sounded like a very interesting untold piece of it. However, if you’re going to tell the tale of an attempted coup against Hitler, don’t sell it as an MI:3 style thriller.
As I sat there, watching the first third of the film where various politicians and generals met in secret as part of a conspiracy against Hitler, I couldn’t help but imagine similar meetings at United Artists where screen writers and producers planned ways of spinning up the thrill aspect of the plot and diminishing the less-splashy political machinations that had historically been involved. Even as an outspoken dissenter, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Tom Cruise, the only guy with an American accent in the entire movie) made his way up the ranks and somehow managed to get back into a position of authority both in the German military structure as well as among anti-Hitler conspirators. In the end it came down to his blowing up Hitler at a strategic briefing to set the rest of Operation Valkyrie into motion.
One of the reasons why this seemed less like a thriller and more like a historical drama is that there was a lot of context. Usually a thriller is pretty lean. We don’t get to know all the side characters involved, such as the men working in the communications office who passed communiques through, or the would-be chancellor of Germany after Hitler’s overthrow. Probably no one would have bothered to write them because those characters have little direct impact on the plot. However, since they’re actual people in a historical movie, they need to be accounted for.
A historical bent is definitely not all bad (though I have no reference as to how accurate director Bryan Singer and the rest of the filmmakers have been). The desire for authenticity makes all the details very vivid. As terrible as the Nazi party was, one thing they did have was style. The costumes and the scenes (one overhead image of rows of Nazi flags outside of S.S. headquarters in particular) look great. It’s amazing how much Tom Cruise even looks like the real von Stauffenberg. Cruise gives a pretty good performance. This character fits his Top Gun persona very well: a man with a cause who will buck the system. It was probably intentional that he stood out like a sore thumb amidst a group of musty bureaucrats. In particular Bill Nighy as Gen. Olbricht was von Stauffenberg’s partner-in-treason but definitely lacked that maverick spirit.
By the mid-point, when the suspense really started to build, I could finally get into the excitement a bit more. How was this one-handed man going to pull off arming the bomb and making sure he was not discovered? What was that look? Does the guard suspect? Unfortunately the other fatal flaw of this movie that deflates a large portion of the tension is that we already know the outcome in advance. We know (historical spoiler alert) that Hitler was not killed by von Stauffenberg and that Nazi Germany was not overthrown by an internal conspiracy. We know that Tom Cruise (despite his can-do attitude) will not succeed. So in the end, we just keep watching for the trigger that brings it all down. Near the end when people are starting to doubt that Hitler has been killed and von Stauffenberg insists on it, he looks kind of silly because we the audience knows that he’s wrong. Credit to Cruise that part of me still kind of believed that it might turn out that he succeeded (but if we had gone into alternate history, this movie would have been a whole other mess).
So, I say see Valkyrie if you are a fan of WW2 movies, or Tom Cruise, but if you’ve been convinced solely by the commercials, let me warn you that the cool-sounding “Operation Valkyrie” is not the name of the assassination plot; that there are more names and conversations that will probably not feel significant to you out of context; that you will wonder why certain scenes are included in the movie when you want to get back to the main plot to kill Hitler; and you will probably be let down by the ending. Nevertheless, this is a polished historical drama, and worthy of at least 3.5 out of 5.
What if I had made Valkyrie?
I don’t know how much “fictionalizing” one can get away with in order to make a historical thriller, but I definitely would have focused-in closer to von Stauffenberg’s own experiences. Have the rest of the facts filled-in without having to depict all kinds of things happening elsewhere. Also, focus on his own relationships: to his family, to his aide, to his co-conspirators, etc. Tom Cruise is a very charismatic actor and I have no doubt that he could have carried even more of the weight of this film on his shoulders.