A bit shallow but undeniably thrilling
Forget the negative hype, get over your feelings about Tom Cruise and don’t get bogged down about absent German accents; Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie delivers suspense and edge-of-your-seat thrills far better than the first two Mission: Impossible films and most other pieces of Hollywood fodder. The audience can’t help but get caught up in a kind of speculative history game, based on fact, in which we imagine and hope the Nazi renegades at its center succeed in assassinating Adolf Hitler towards the end of World War II. That they fail in their plan is no surprise; however, what makes Valkyrie compelling are the small moments that doom this scheme, tiny details that eventually have a tragic ripple effect on thousands, if not millions of lives that might have been spared.
Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) has become disillusioned with the Third Reich, Hitler’s plans for world domination and the annihilation of the Jewish people. He views these actions as a blight on Germany and vows to put an end to the Fuhrer’s reign, even if he must do so himself. Surprisingly, he finds that others share his feelings of discontent and he’s soon introduced to a group led by General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp) intent on taking control of the German government.
Stauffenberg introduces a more daring plan, suggesting they assassinate Hitler, which will trigger the Valkyrie initiative where a group of standby soldiers will assume control of the government seat in Berlin. Stauffenberg suggests that during the turmoil, he and his followers will be able to pull off a successful coup.
Many key players need to be recruited for the plan to succeed. Some of them join willingly, while others need to be coerced. Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) is necessary in pushing the plan forward, General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) is needed to activate the Valkyrie initiative, while General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) holds the key to controlling communications while this plot is afoot. However, General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) proves to be the wildcard in the equation, a man who shares in the group’s dissatisfaction but who seems hesitant to act.
Singer, working from a script by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, keeps things moving at a brisk pace. After an initial sequence in which we see von Stauffenberg severely wounded in North Africa, which only increases his disillusionment, the film moves from one key moment in the plot to the next. Officers are recruited, plans are hatched, they go awry, they regroup and then embark down a path of no return, in which they will be hailed as either heroes, traitors or martyrs.
The most fascinating aspect of the film is the examination of the little known pieces of this scheme and the seemingly small actions that doom it. One of the riskiest parts of the plan is that von Stiffener must get an amended version of the Valkyrie act signed by Hitler, a scene that Singer wrings every last bit of tension from, while a moment of hesitation from a key player and a case of miscommunication alters the plan to the point that it can never recover.
This is all presented in a crisp, taut manner that keeps us intrigued throughout, despite our knowledge of its conclusion. Singer’s taut pacing sweeps us along and he takes little time to explore the officers’ pasts or their motivations. These men have been duped and are desperate, not only for redemption but also for the sense of pride in themselves and their country that Hitler promised them. We are never told of their past actions in service of the Reich, which may have included criminal acts. Also, there are hints that they may be acting so that they will be treated more favorably by the advancing allied forces if they are able to broker peace after their successful coup.
While Singer and Cruise have delivered an exciting tale of subterfuge and espionage, a more in-depth look at the men behind the plot might have resulted in a fascinating examination on how good men can be led astray and find themselves in a position in which redemption may not be possible.