Saturday, September 12, 2015

CRACKER? Valkyrie (2008)



                “Valkyrie” is based on the true story of the plot to assassinate Hitler.  The assassination and the implementation of the government takeover were known as Operation Valkyrie.  The main conspirator was Col. Claus von Stauffenberg who is portrayed by Tom Cruise.  The movie was directed by Marc Singer.  It is his first and only war movie and he treated it as a thriller based in a war.  The film had a bit of a difficult gestation.  Tom Cruise’s association and his Scientology beliefs made many Germans (including the Stauffenberg family) skeptical about the film and at first there was opposition to filming in Germany.  However, support from German newspapers and filmmakers eventually overcame the roadblocks.  Singer was even allowed to film scenes in the Bindlerblock (now called the Memorial to the German Resistance) where the plot was centered. 
SPOILER ALERT:  Someone tries to blow up Hitler 

                The other obstacle that had to be overcome was the lukewarm studio reaction to the project.  Tom Cruise was damaged goods, although his performance in “Tropic Thunder” had generated a lot of good will.  The idea of a World War II epic with a heavy dose of Nazism in it was also cause for concern.  In spite of this, United Artists poured $75 million into the project.  Some of that money went to building a replica of the Wolf’s Lair which took three months.  When the movie was completed the studio was not sure what to do with it.  The release date was pushed back until a test audience gave it a seal of approval.  At that point the suits decided it warranted a Christmas release because nothing says "Noel" more than a Nazi death plot.  The movie did not start off strong at the box office and got mixed reviews, but it ended up making $83 million domestically and over $200 million worldwide.
Why wasn't Tom Cruise in front of
a firing squad used to market the movie?

                The movie opens with German soldiers taking an oath of loyalty to der Fuhrer.  This is a crucial scene because it explains the anguish most of the conspirators will go through in violating that oath.  One of those soldiers who breaks that pledge is a Col. von Stauffenberg.  We meet him in Tunisia in the waning days of the Afrika Korps’ defense of North Africa.  He mouths off about S.S. atrocities and clearly is at a tipping point in his loyalty toward Hitler.  An air attack by two P-40s on his column results in grievous injuries including loss of an eye (from bombs dropped that the planes clearly do not have - cliche alert!).  Stauffenberg’s fighting days are over and his plotting days have begun.  He will be a newcomer to the conspiracy as Maj. Gen. Trasckow (Kenneth Branagh) is already actively trying to kill Hitler.  He manages to place a bomb on the Fuhrer’s plane when he visits the Eastern Front, but unfortunately it fails to work and Trasckow has to rush to Berlin to retrieve the incriminating evidence.  This is the first scene that makes you wonder how much of the screenplay is enhanced for entertainment value.

                Stauffenberg is recruited into the plot and takes charge of the disparate conspirators.  He is full of charisma, enthusiasm, and balls.  He realizes that they have not given enough thought to what happens after Hitler is dead.  He suggests they use the already in place Operation Valkyrie plan.  That plan provides for the Reserve Army to deal with a national emergency.  Stauffenberg daringly attends a meeting of Hitler’s inner circle to get him to sign off on adjustments to the plan.  After two aborted attempts, Stauffenberg manages to bring a briefcase with explosives to a strategy meeting hosted by Hitler.  He leaves the building confident that the explosion has killed the Fuhrer and heads back to the Bindlerblock to set up the new government.  Hitler’s miraculous survival causes the plot to unravel despite the efforts of Stauffenberg and the true believers.  As Gen. Beck (Terence Stamp) opines, “this is a military operation, nothing ever goes according to plan.”
"What do you mean we killed Moe Howard?"

                “Valkyrie” is a big budget effort and the effort shows.  The cast is international and stellar.  Cruise is the only  superstar, but the rest of the cast are recognizable talents.  They are also recognizable as the real historical people they play.  A sampling of their pictures alongside their characters shows the great work of the casting director and the make-up artists.  (They may look like the people, but don't expect them to sound like them.  "If Cruise doesn't have to attempt an accent - neither do we!")  This was not a vanity project for Cruise and although he is not the best actor involved, he does a satisfactory job portraying Stauffenberg.  He deserves credit for the eight months of research he did in preparing for the role.


                The money was not just spent on the salaries of the cast.  Rebuilding the Wolf’s Lair must have been expensive.  Singer went to great trouble to get the details right.  He used authentic P-40s for the one combat scene.  Not that anyone would notice, he acquired thirty period teletype machines for the scenes set in the communications room.  To top that off, the messages we see arriving are all actual messages from the archives!  The sets and costumes are spot on.  I found little of the usual carping about improper insignia, etc.  The score is excellent and fits the mood well in an understated way.

                The plot is suspenseful, especially if you don’t know much about what happened.  The movie manages to juggle numerous characters without too much confusion, although a second viewing helps.  One weakness is there is not a lot of character exposition.  We do not clearly know why Stauffenberg is motivated to break his oath and kill a leader he admired at one time.  Providing this insight would have substantially increased the length of the film probably.  Most importantly, the movie does not smack of Hollywood excess.  Stauffenberg is not an action hero.  But he undoubtedly is a hero and the movie does an admirable job doing justice to the brave members of the conspiracy.  Many viewers will learn for the first time that there was a significant resistance to Hitler.  Not all Germans were cowed by the Nazis.  However, the movie does leave the impression that if Hitler had still been winning the war in 1944, he would not have been in danger of assassination.
the first attempt - giving Hitler a yellow card

                As far as the accuracy, the movie is reminiscent of “Downfall” and is an excellent companion to it.  Like that other Hitler epic, “Valkyrie” is amazingly accurate.  I will be posting a “History or Hollywood” on it in the future, but for now I can preview that nothing happens in the movie that is significant tampering with history.  For instance, the seemingly Hollywoodish first attempt via a bomb on the plane is basically what happened with the tweak of having Tresckow retrieving the package instead of an aide.  Why not use Branagh for that?  All the real historical personages are portrayed as they were, not just in looks.  The reenactment of the July 20 attempt is excellent and the movie even uses some Hollywood theatrics to show what should have happened.  It is important to note that although some people are familiar with the bombing, the movie does an admirable job depicting the ensuing events which are less well known.  “Valkyrie” is basically a big budget, all-star documentary.  You need not look or read elsewhere if you want to know the story of the assassination attempt.  This movie is the gold standard for its topic.

                I have to admit that when I first heard about this movie I was upset.  Part of that feeling was due to concern about Cruise making a historical movie, but mainly because I questioned the potential for a movie about a failed attempt to kill Hitler.  I just could not imagine that there would be a substantial audience for that subject.  Why would Hollywood spend $75 million on a war movie that no one wanted?  I still feel the money could have been better spent on a film about the St. Nazaire Raid, for instance.  However, I have to admit I was wrong.  “Valkyrie” is an excellent movie on a subject that deserved treatment.  It’s nice to know a movie like this can make money.  It is definitely one of the 100 Best War Movies.


GRADE  =  A


4 comments:

  1. Excellent, excellent post. I've been championing this one for years - I loved it in theaters and rewatches have only confirmed my opinion. Reminds me of A Bridge Too Far in watching small mistakes gradually snowballing into calamity. I think Cruise is the main reason people were leery about this one, but I'd daresay this is his best performance. And everyone else is perfect.

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  2. “Valkyrie” is in the top 20 of my favorite war movies. Your right, people downgrade the movie due to Cruise. I'm no Cruise fan because he always plays the same cocky and arrogant character in every film he's in. But, anyone willing to kill Hitler had to cocky and arrogant! Plus, he looks like Stauffenberg.

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    1. I am not sure I agree with Cruise playing his usual character. I found Stauffenberg to be more of a take charge kind of guy rather than cocky and arrogant. I certainly did not get the arrogant vibe.

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    2. I agree with you. I have always been wary of Tom Cruise movies ever since "Top Gun" a movie I hated, but he did an excellent job as Stauffenberg. Cruise did play him as a man that was humble, but with a high moral belief in what he was doing. I mistook bravery with arrogance.

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