Inherently, a key plot turn in Valkyrie comes pre-spoiled. We know in advance about the failure of the July 1944 Hitler assassination attempt, an elaborate scheme to both off der Fuhrer and quickly reroute the Nazi war machinery by skillfully manipulating the “Operation Valkyrie.” Given that historical fait accompli, the challenge for the filmmakers here was to do an end run around our foreknowledge and to inject pure movie-making intrigue. Oh, and there is the potential box office boffo factor of Tom Cruise as the handsome would-be assassin, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg.
In some way, regardless of the careful period piece details and location shooting in Berlin, the film’s underlying premise involves a “what’s history got to do with it?” attitude. The film has none of the intelligence or probing historical investigative qualities of recent Nazi-era German films Sophie Scholl and Downfall. But as a tautly made thriller with Hollywood polish, Valkyrie is an effectively nervous-making edge-of-the-seater.
Director Bryan Singer, drawing on the skills he demonstrated in The Usual Suspects, manages to create a maze of small details and feats of German cunning and engineering. Cruise is as good as he needs to be and no more as Stauffenberg (reportedly, part of Cruise’s decision to play the role came from his resemblance to the German officer in profile – like Tina Fey recognizing her fate after realizing her visual similarity to Sarah Palin). Early in the film, Cruise’s Stauffenberg gnashes his soul over the grim turns of Hitler’s Germany: “I’m a soldier. I serve my country. But this is not my country.” After brainstorming the assassination-coup conspiracy while listening to Wagner’s “Ride of the Walkurie” on his gramophone, Stauffenberg tells his highly placed colleagues in the plot that Hitler’s portrait “will be un-hung, and the man will be hung.”
Once we’re in the clutches of the story’s action-packed sections, reality or questions of military morality take a backseat to the visceral thrill of the caper. We may as well be watching the handsome and efficient Cruise in Mission: Impossible mode, although in a very different, low-tech version. Valkyrie reminds us that WWII films can now function as escapist kitsch, removed from the real world, real time military tensions of the day.