***/**** Image N/A Sound B Extras A
starring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp
screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander
directed by Bryan Singer
by Walter Chaw Tight as a drum, deadly serious, and a mild corrective to not the enduring misconception that there were no men of conscience in Hitler's Germany, but rather to sickly, condescending awards-season bullshit like Defiance, The Reader, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Bryan Singer's Valkyrie swoops down like its titular winged avatar to deliver the Holocaust melodrama to a minor kind of Valhalla. It's sober-minded and fact-based, with another handsome-destroying performance by Tom Cruise (though he only loses one eye here after losing both in Minority Report) that places him in uneasy orbit alongside Warren Beatty as another pretty boy aspiring for seriousness through mutilation of the self. It's a sober thriller, and because the outcome is never in doubt in a historically-based plot to assassinate Hitler, it lives and dies by its ability to sound smart and cast well.
It has a mandate to entertain, to honour, to educate if it can, to be relevant if at all possible--and sure enough, there's something amazingly subversive about a film that demonstrates, in an election year, that conscientious objection to corrupt leadership is the ultimate expression of patriotism. No accident that by 1944, many in the German military structure thought the SS and the things it was rumoured to be doing to civilians reflected dishonourably on an honourable people. It's interesting, too, to see a WWII film from 2009, set in Germany in 1944, that doesn't deal at all with the victims of the Holocaust, save one oblique line in a journal entry that opens the piece. Valkyrie is post-modern in that sense that the viewer, as a prerequisite, brings with him the weight of implication; even if the audience doesn't know the details or the chronology, there's a reliance on the fact that Nazis have become somehow archetypal avatars of absolute evil. Enough so that it's now possible to make a qualitative, indeed desirable, distinction between the SS and the German regulars. It's the perfect film for our age of reassessment and ambiguity.
Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) is the battle-scarred face of an anti-government conspiracy that includes people at every level of Hitler's military hierarchy. The plot to overthrow der Führer involves a bomb under a table and the invocation of a failsafe martial law plan that jumps into play upon any destabilization. Stauffenberg hopes to criminalize the SS, seize control of power, and enter into negotiations with the Allies, who engage in terror bombings of the German civilian population throughout the picture. It's important to note the terror of Stauffenberg's young children as good ol' American steel starts raining down on them, less because Valkyrie is any sort of revisionist history than because the casualties of even popular wars are something the Bush II administration was loathe to address. Important to note, too, that the moment Stauffenberg hits upon his plan for reorganization is during a bombing raid--and that one of the technical advisors to this film suggested they model this scene of domestic terror on his own memories of the bombing raids carried out against the Brits. Its modern context, it seems obvious, is that there is no greater patriotism than the moral questioning of your leadership. In its pacing, its cool intelligence, and the prestige of a cast epitomized by Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson, it reminds of the machine-tooled precision of late-'80s, late-Cold War pictures like The Fourth Protocol and The Russia House. This is an adult prestige-thriller that trusts its audience to follow an at-times-convoluted plot and to be persuaded into tension by a story the resolution of which is never in doubt.
But it does it, and does it with wit and the kind of alacrity we've begun to expect from Singer, who finds in Stauffenberg's doubt and humanity another of his übermenschen after Superman Returns. Singer's films work because they're excavations of the bedrock upon which our stories are derived. It's as difficult at this point to talk about WWII as it is to talk about Superman, the X-Men... I think that the effectiveness of Singer's Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects, or his fictional Nazi Dussander from Apt Pupil, lies in Singer's innate understanding that the heroes of his pictures are identical to the villains in their essential unknowable complexities. He plays Valkyrie like a comic book to the extent that the comics are sociological texts at the bottom, right next to film, of our civilization's myth-making apparatus. When they're presented as fables, as Bruno Bettelheim would distinguish, with martinet protagonists and sympathetic antagonists, they're impossible to appreciate on a non-didactic level; when they're presented as Singer presents them--as fairytales with evolving lessons and characters at various stages of development--what emerges is a blueprint for personal identity.
It's no accident that his X-Men flicks are best read as allegories for "coming out" and that his Superman Returns is fascinated with the strain of being set apart, for good or for ill, and the commensurate need for personal history. Valkyrie, then, is a movie about the United States, young in the new millennium, as it comes to terms with its role as infant kings capable of influencing, from afar and with absolute, sterile indifference, the fate of the rest of the world. Stauffenberg's weapon of choice isn't the gun or the knife, after all, but a bomb on an acid timer. Hand-in-hand with the apocalyptic visions in cinema the last couple of years, Valkyrie is about the gulf separating the sweet inaccessibility of our idealism from the unforeseen consequences of our failures. The word is "bittersweet": it's nice to know there were people like Stauffenberg, regardless of whether--or perhaps because--the only victories they enjoyed were pyrrhic.
Through their parent distributor FOX, MGM sent a check disc for our perusal of Valkyrie's single-disc release (there's a Two-Disc SE that also reflects the content of the Blu-ray version), meaning that it's nigh impossible for us to judge the video quality of this DVD. On certain players, in fact, like the one in my bedroom, it skips a few minutes ahead whenever the encoding artifacts on the disc really kick in. Thanks a pantload, FOX. Watching it on my computer, ironically, clears up the glitch. Like you care. The DD 5.1 audio seems in good working order, with the picture's opening Allied ambush booming in all channels. Commentary rich, begin with a track featuring Singer, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (working with Singer for the first time since The Usual Suspects), and--in a rare supplementary apperance--Cruise that is packed with interesting information and what feels like unaffected passion for the story and project. Touched on lightly is the controversy surrounding Scientologist Cruise portraying Stauffenberg, while each participant speaks eloquently to the impact of having Germans on-set who actually remember the wild days immediately following the rumours of Hitler's alleged assassination.
A second commentary with McQuarrie and co-writer Nathan Alexander doesn't have the spark of the Cruise-Singer pairing but does include priceless observations based around how much exposition was excised for fear of Valkyrie becoming a basic-cable docudrama. I appreciate that it's not just a small percentage of the audience crying out against movies that over-explain themselves--something underscored in the previous yakker by Singer repeatedly going back to the idea that he prefers to tell the story through actions. Ironically, the first track focuses a lot of its time, too, on the historical accuracy ladled on every aspect of the production. (In this context, at least, it's welcome.) "The Journey to Valkyrie" (15 mins.) is more or less a standard making-of, the difference coming in its final minutes as various cast and crew recount the feedback they received from Germans with memories of certain incidents as they were being recreated and the actors reveal that they shot in the places their characters were eventually executed, something they felt was important. The longer documentary that rounds out the presentation, "The Valkyrie Legacy" (42 mins.), is a handsomely-mounted piece detailing the history of the conspiracy, punctuated with historians plus widows and family members of those involved. Archival footage of the Third Reich I hadn't seen before provided an unexpected curiosity. Originally published: July 28, 2009.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.