Well known in historical circles, and less so outside of them, the July 20 Plot is, like so much having to do with World War II, so incredible it’s almost hard to believe it actually happened. Which is probably why Hollywood likes making movies about it. The good guys were really good, the bad guys were really bad and, as Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie” reminds us right from the start, it’s all based on a true story.
Considering how rich the material is it’s surprising “Valkyrie” has never been dramatized before outside of a few History Channel re-enactments. Almost from the start of the war there were members of the German High Command opposed to Hitler’s regime, not least because of the loss of the Wehrmacht’s influence to Hitler’s inner circle and the Schutzstaffel (SS). When it became clear Hitler’s popularity (not to mention the Gestapo) would keep a civilian uprising from happening, the resistance leaders quickly decided that the only option was a military coup d’état, beginning with Hitler’s assassination. It might be the only time in history a violent military uprising would be a ‘good thing.’
The difficulty with any film based on historical events is trying to maintain suspense when any viewer can find out what happened with little effort. And it’s doubly difficult when the subject is a conspiracy story, where all the suspense is built on the conspirators being discovered. The usual response is to flying the face of that knowledge, using likeable characters and charismatic actors to build a rapport with the audience, building suspense out of the oncoming inevitable. The risk is that the story becomes a recitation of facts and events that never coalesces into a story.
Singer (“The Usual Suspects,” “X-Men”) is too skilled for that, fortunately, and “Valkyrie” weaves a line between the two extremes in an attempt at both drama and verisimilitude. By and large it works. While there are quite a few moments of grandeur and scope, Singer spends most of his time with his characters, making them sweat, including two iterations of the required ‘will he look in the box and discover my true intentions’ scene. It’s not a character drama by any stretch–emotions tend to be hinted at more than expressed–but it does its job.
For most of the war Resistance members dithered, too afraid of being caught to fully commit themselves. It took the arrival of von Stauffenberg, fresh from being hideously injured in the Africa campaign (it cost him an eye, two fingers and a hand), to force them to face the reality of what they were attempting. Devout, driven and blunt, von Stauffenberg was larger than life in a way so many men in the war were, and Cruise dives into him with gusto. No one would ever accuse Cruise of having a lot of range as an actor, but I there is one emotion he can convey with no trouble, it is that drive to succeed at all costs. Its not so much that he becomes von Stauffenberg as he shares enough similar traits with the man that he can fill his boots without it ringing hollow, from his contempt for the General’s reticence to his silent, persistent refusal to say ‘Heil Hitler.’ It’s casting to type, but it works.
It helps that his supporting cast brings a lot to the table. Bill Nighy’s usual irrepressible confidence and self-deprecating charm is completely hidden under resistance leader Fredriech Olbrecht’s uncertainty and spinelessness. And Tom Wilkinson is magnificently arrogant and capricious as Friedrich Fromm, the lynch pin of the coup who refuses to pick a side until he knows who the winner will be. It’s a role he’s played before and he does it well as ever. “Valkyrie” sticks to one of the classic military fiction tropes of the General’s being overly self-involved, with the real work falling on juniors like von Stauffenberg, his assistant Werner (Jamie Parker) and bomb maker von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel), both of whom excel. The rest of the cast doesn’t get as much to do, but their few minutes tend to be among the film’s best moments, especially the permanently irritated Thomas Kretschmann, and Kenneth Branagh, who exits the film unfortunately early. It’s well balanced though, focusing on the plan, with each person doing their part. No more and no less. The only keenly felt loss is Carice van Houten as von Stauffenberg’s wife. Considering how important a motivation his family was, her lack of screen time feels like a major missing piece. The toughest job of all, though, has to go to David Bamber (“Rome”), who has the unenviable task of recreating Hitler without turning it into a parody.
But make no mistake this is not an ensemble, or even an actor’s film. This is Bryan Singer’s film, and a testament to how much he can get out of the run up to the bombing and its aftermath. It’s a beautiful film, owing much to the production team–cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel, production designer Lilly Kilvert, editor and composer John Ottman–he has collected over several films. It’s not as aware of its images as “Superman Returns” was, allowing them to unfold naturally. As von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators silently approach the Wolf’s Den (Hitler’s command bunker on the Eastern Front) past rows of soldiers, it efficiently and perfectly communicates what they, and the world for that matter, are up against.
It’s not a hundred percent accurate, but that’s probably a good thing. A dry re-enactment of events would be unbearable to sit through. However, it does allow for the white washing of character faults. Von Stauffenberg was a loyal Nazi for many years, but it’s beyond the scope of the film’s interest to examine what made him go along with them, and what finally changed his mind. “Valkyrie” always chooses suspense over character development, and as engrossing as it can be, it can be equally shallow.
As both a World War II film and a conspiracy story, “Valkyrie” largely succeeds. No one part may stand above its fellows (not to mention other films) but what it adds up to is more than worthwhile and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.