Film Review: Valkyrie

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After keeping "Valkyrie" under wraps for months and moving its release date four times, MGM has finally pulled back the curtains on its Tom Cruise historical thriller to reveal a coolly efficient, entertaining and straightforward tale about the last of 15 known assassination attempts against Adolf Hitler.

Working against the known outcome of this plot, director Bryan Singer -- reunited with his "The Usual Suspects" screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and his writing partner Nathan Alexander -- manages to maintain suspense and involvement in the unfolding conspiracy. With such World War II movies as "Defiance" and "Good" also on tap this month, there is no doubt the Nazis continue to provide fodder for movie producers.

How great the fascination among moviegoers is another question. Curiosity about seeing Cruise sporting an eye patch might ensure initial crowds when the film opens Christmas Day. But whatever its superficial resemblance to Cruise's highly popular "Mission: Impossible" series, "Valkyrie" isn't a crowd-pleaser of that order. The release should enjoy modest success, but if Cruise's career is seen as momentarily stalled, "Valkyrie" is not the electric jolt he needs to jump-start it.

Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a central figure in the shrewdly planned July 20, 1944, assassination and coup attempt against the Nazi leader. A considerable number of people were involved, and the film understandably whittles these down to a manageable cast. (About 200 people were hanged and about 700 were arrested in connection to the plot.)

The film opens with Stauffenberg forswearing his allegiance to the Fuhrer because of the murderous outrages the German leader has committed, forever staining the honor of his country and its army. This is a key point, yet the movie hurries off to chronicle an earlier assassination attempt that misfires, Stauffenberg's own severe injuries fighting in Tunisia, his recruitment by similar-minded officers and the bomb he plants at the Wolf's Lair that fails to kill Hitler.

The film needed to explore more fully the motives of these people who found themselves willing to eliminate their supreme commander. The audience knows why we'd like to see the bastard dead, but why do these Germans? Stauffenberg's explanation is fine as far as it goes, but does it apply to the other conspirators? It's unclear what other motivation might have driven Stauffenberg, not least whether he envisioned himself as a potential postwar German leader.

Cruise doesn't actually star in this movie as he has in nearly all his previous films. He is the key player in an ensemble, but he -- how to put this? -- blends in. Frankly, the following offer up equal if not more compelling performances: Kenneth Branagh's Maj.-Gen. Tresckow, an even stronger zealot; such ambiguous figures as Tom Wilkinson's Gen. Fromm and Eddie Izzard's Gen. Fellgiebel; Terence Stamp's Gen. Beck, who resigns as early as 1938 to protest Hitler's military aggression; and Bill Nighy's Gen. Olbricht, who hesitates at a crucial moment.

The coup itself, following the assassination attempt that many believe has succeeded, makes for fascinating viewing and much what-if speculation that should continue long after the credits roll. All details are convincing and presumably well researched. The film has a documentary-like authenticity yet remains a sleek thriller filled with flawed heroes and catastrophic missteps.

Singer has crafted a fine film. One just wishes for greater details -- and a different ending.
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