2 01 2009


“To understand National Socialism,” Adolf Hitler (David Bamber) confides to Col. Klaus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) midway through Valkyrie, “One must know one’s Wagner.  Do you know your Wagner?”  Yes, says our hero, but Bryan Singer, who filmed all this, doesn’t.  Nothing about the culture of Nazism as portrayed here suggests Die Walküre, in fact, except that Von Stauffenberg’s kids like to play it on the phonograph while pretending to fight epic battles in the living room with stick swords.  This is a movie about military tactics, political intrigue, and Tom Cruise using the telephone to create an empire.  He is watchable here–moreso, I would say, than he was in Tropic Thunder, and he knows how to keep an erect posture, avert his gaze, be calm under pressure, and generally command the attention of the camera.  We might expect all this, to be sure, but also much more, given that he is in the presence of some of the great character actors of our time, including the stellar Bill Nighy, the perfectly controlled Tom Wilkinson, the deliciously weasly Tom Hollander, the buttery Terence Stamp, and the corpulently flamboyant Kenneth Branagh.  Cruise can match them only because the script puts him in a position to bark orders in their direction.  That pretty face, counted upon to sell millions of tickets, can never let go of itself to get lost in a character.

As to the story, it should make sense but the filmmaker hasn’t put the camera where it should be and so it doesn’t.  Stauffenberg, after a number of mistrials, finally manages to put a bomb under Hitler who is standing at a briefing table, and to make an exit.  Behind him, the bomb goes off.  We see the smoke.  No one in that room should be alive.  But somehow Hitler is.  That all this is historically true may be interesting, but it doesn’t help the moviegoer who is expecting either success or a reasonable explanation for why things go wrong.  Here we get neither.  The plotters are rounded up and summarily shot.  Closing credit cards inform us what happened later to other characters, including Hitler himself, who suicided in 1945.

The film is larded–pardon me–with Hollywood Nazi conventions:  the open-roofed field cars, the uncountable identity checks, the “Sieg Heil”s, the unctuous “Mein Führer”s, Hitler’s haircut, the scurrying messengers with sealed orders on yellow paper, and so on.  Only one thing drifts out of this chaos and takes form, and that is Nighy’s utterly sharp performance as a man whose habits are too meticulous, whose eyes keep fluttering around like a nervous egret’s, whose lips curl when we don’t expect them to, and who is ultimately a coward.  Every instant he is onscreen, the film comes alive.