Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/25/08 01:55:39

"Teutonic Thunder"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Of all the films competing in the end-of-the-year derby for both box-office supremacy and awards, none of them have arrived in theaters with as much questionable word-of-mouth as the World War II action-drama “Valkyrie.” Right from the start, when it was announced that Tom Cruise was planning to produce and star in a film in which he would play a high-ranking German soldier who led a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944, the project raised eyebrows amongst people who just couldn’t see all-American hero Cruise playing a Nazi, no matter how heroic he might be. Then there were the rumors that began emerging that German officials refused to grant the production permission to film in key locations in Berlin, ostensibly because of Cruise’s affiliation with the Church of Scientology. (These charges were denied by all involved and the film was eventually allowed to shoot in the necessary locales.) Most significantly, the film kept getting shifted around on the release schedule--at one point, it was pushed all the way back to 2009--amid rumors of troubling test screening results and last-minute reshoots. However, collectors of cinematic turkeys will be disappointed to learn that despite all of the bad buzz, “Valkyrie” is nowhere near the outright bomb that many assumed that it would be. That said, it should be noted that the film is also nowhere near the gripping cinematic experience that it should have been given the subject matter.

Cruise plays Claus von Stauffenberg, a colonel in the German army and when we first encounter him leading his troops in Tunisia in 1943, we discover that he is actually a surprisingly progressive Nazi--he loves his country and the men that he is in charge of but is becoming more and more convinced that Adolf Hitler is a power-mad lunatic and that his battle plans are increasingly leading his troops into battles that they cannot win. When an Allied attack costs Stauffenberg his left eye and several fingers, he is sent back to Berlin to recuperate and is eventually recruited by a group of high-ranking German officials (played by the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp and Bill Nighy) who have been trying unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler and take control of the country themselves as a last-ditch effort to bring an end to the war by making peace with the increasingly powerful Allied forces. While previous attempts involved such complicated items as a boob-trapped bottle of booze, Stauffenberg hits upon the idea of taking the top-secret plan known as Operation Valkyrie--a plan created by Hitler himself to restore order in the event that Allied bombing raids cut off communications to the high command--and refiguring it so that after assassinating Hitler, the conspirators could effectively stage a quick and effective coup by taking control of the major cities, disarming the SS and arresting other Nazi high officials once the word of his death began to emerge. Of course, for the plan to work, Hitler has to die or at least appear to have died and so it falls to Stauffenberg himself, who was appointed by Hitler to be in charge of Valkyrie who had close access to the man, to plant the bomb designed to kill him and quickly return to Germany in order to put the plan in motion and either convince others to join his team or, in the case of General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), the only man other than Hitler himself with the authority to actually launch Valkyrie, neutralize those who won’t.

“Valkyrie” sounds exciting enough on paper, I suppose, but it contains two huge narrative roadblocks that director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (who previously wrote Singer’s “Public Access” and his breakthrough “The Usual Suspects”) and Nathan Alexander are unable to overcome. The first is the inescapable fact that this is essentially a suspense thriller whose outcome is (hopefully) known to every ticket buyer long before the movie begins. Of course, there have been plenty of fine historically based films that have come out over the years that have had similar problems going in and have still managed to come across as gripping drama because of the way they have been structured. For example, James Cameron had the brilliant idea in “Titanic” to give us that early scene in which the modern-day researchers explain their theories on what actually happened after the boat hit the iceberg, a move that allowed us to follow along more closely in the last half when those very things happened one by one. More recently, “Frost/Nixon” gave us a detailed look at the behind-the-scenes machinations of how the David Frost/ Richard Nixon interviews came to be that helped to inform the proceedings. Here, however, the film fails to supply us with any of those little details--we are never really given a clear idea of what is supposed to happen if Valkyrie goes off without a hitch and therefore, the moments when it begins to fall apart due to human error or bad luck have no real impact.

The other problem is that the film is never really able to convince us of the purity of the motives of those in on the plot. Sure, they repeatedly insists on their love for their country and their desire to pull it back from the abyss at all costs but, quite frankly, they come across here as power-hungry men who have realized that their careers are at a standstill and that this coup plan, as ungainly as it may be, is the only way that they will ever taste any real power. For example, if Stauffenberg is so dedicated to the idea of killing Hitler in order to save future generations of Germans, why doesn’t he simply stay in the room with Hitler and the bomb in order to ensure that it goes off properly, even at the cost of his own life? Granted, there has been plenty of documentation of this incident to suggest the purity of the motives of those involved but the film fails to put it across to us--when Fromm eventually decries them as traitors who are only looking out for themselves, I found myself agreeing with him and I seriously doubt that is the attitude that Singer was hoping to convey at that particular point.

Another problem with “Valkyrie”--and I almost hate to mention it since I assume that so many others will be commenting on it--is the miscasting of Tom Cruise in the role of Stauffenberg, his second film this year in which he plays a high-ranking executive overseeing an elaborate production that spirals out of control before his eyes.). Given the right role, Cruise is, of course, an excellent actor and I suppose that he should be applauded for taken the considerable risk of tackling a role so far outside of his comfort zone. Unfortunately, right from the start, it becomes clear that this was an artistic gamble on his part that simply doesn’t pay off. He simply lacks the authority that a person like Stauffenberg must have possessed in order to get as far as he did in the German army or to convince people to abandon Hitler and take up with him instead. (Be sure to notice the complicated editing pattern that the film employs to ensure that we never see the words “Heil Hitler” actually emerging from his lips.) Despite the eye patch and the prosthesis designed to create the illusion of missing fingers, he doesn’t disappear into the character at all--he just comes across as Tom Cruise playing dress-up in a German uniform. He isn’t helped at all by the decision to have him talk in his normal voice--while I suppose this is preferable to listening to him approximating a German accent, the end result is a little ridiculous. Perhaps realizing that Cruise wasn’t going to be the world’s most convincing Nazi soldier, Singer has surrounded him with a number of high-caliber supporting actors as his peers--the idea presumably being that by seeing him in the company of such genuinely authoritative personalities like Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp, we might view Cruise as their equal. However, the opposite happens--every time he goes toe to toe with one of them, he only seems less and less convincing, especially since the conceit that has all the good Nazis sporting British accents and all the bad ones sporting German ones is thrown out of whack once Cruise’s American accent is tossed into the mix.

“Valkyrie” isn’t a total disaster by any means--once the Valkyrie plan is finally launched once and for all after a couple of false starts, it finally begins to generate some excitement as a wartime variation of one of those films where a bunch of guys get together to pull off some seemingly impossible mission. And yet, even though those scenes work on a technical level, they lack the dramatic heft required to fully pull them off--at times, the film feels like “Ocean’s Eleven” with jackboots. (Yes, I realize that I have already deployed a similar joke in my review of “The Reader”--in my defense, there are so many movies coming out today that I am forced to take the occasional shortcut in order to get the reviews out in time and besides, is it my fault that there are so many Nazi-themed films hitting theaters today?) While watching the film, I couldn’t help but flash back to another film, Paul Verhoeven’s astounding “Black Book” and not just because it seems as if half the cast of that particular movie turns up here (including Carice van Houten, the electrifying and sexy star of that story who has been shamefully demoted here to a couple of pointless scenes as Stauffenberg’s wife before disappearing entirely from the proceedings). That film told a story involving elaborate espionage plots against high-ranking Nazi officials but it did so with the right amount of tension, excitement, energy and historical perspective. Too bad that the makers of “Valkyrie” didn’t cherry-pick those elements from “Black Book” along with the actors--if they had, the end result might have been something better than the muddled military misfire that we have been left with.

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