Who will win in the ultimate battle between the Nazis and Tom Cruise?? Me, you, and Bryan Singer, that’s who!
I enjoyed this film.
I know! I’m just as surprised as you are. Tom Cruise, wearing an eyepatch, speaks German, and I still like this movie. Director Bryan Singer is the reason, of course. You may know him best as the brilliant (yes, I said brilliant!) director of the first two X-Men movies, not to mention that old chestnut, The Usual Suspects. Some genius snagged Singer to direct Valkyrie, which, in case you are unaware, is about Tom Cruise vs. Hitler (finally!). The trailer almost looks fake, like one of those trailers before Tropic Thunder, poking fun at the careers of actors. This one looked like it set out to be Cruise’s Braveheart. Period piece? Check. Heroic, better-than-you martyr? Check! Combine these elements with Nazis, and you are back in action. College guys will have you on their dorm room walls, tough guys will quote your lines to each other at parties, and everyone you know will tell you how noble you looked up on that screen with that eyepatch.
Luckily, things took a different turn. Tom Cruise is dreadfully miscast as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who has had it up to here with the way the Nazi thing has turned out and is determined to be a dick about it until someone finally asks him to figure out a way to assassinate Adolf Hitler and end the war. His portrayal is predictably self-conscious (I can think of ten actors off the top of my head who would have been perfectly suited for this role, #1 being Viggo Mortensen and #2 being…I don’t know, anyone else), but because the character is so underdeveloped in the script, it ends up not mattering too much.
For instance, I said the Colonel and his pals are fed up with Hitler and the SS, but I didn’t say why. “Oh, because Hitler is HITLER and obviously the most odious human being to exist ever ever,” you say. Well, sure, but the rest of Germany thought he was OK, so why not these guys? Von Stauffenberg briefly mentions a couple of things that nettle him about the rest of the Nazis at the very beginning of the film, but it’s glossed over, and no one ever speaks about it again. I’m betting the real reason is that it didn’t really have that much to do with sympathy for the Holocaust victims and discomfort with the idea of taking over the world but was actually more about the methods being used. So skipping over internal conflicts and getting right to the plot was either very stupid of the screenwriters or very smart. Because unlike von Stauffenberg’s plot, the film ends up succeeding despite these huge obstacles.
Singer takes advantage of the fact that we all know Hitler wasn’t assassinated and the result is such that we are practically sick with anticipation for the majority of the film. In a crowded theater full of teenage boys, hours of total silence has got to be some indication that a talented director of suspense is at work here. And don’t worry, your heart is beating so fast that it drowns out the dumbest of the heroic speeches. While not a thinkpiece since no one’s really wrestling with questions of ethics (surprising in a film about dissension in the Nazi ranks), Singer manages to keep it smart, attractive, quick, and very, very engaging, kind of like Tom Cruise in his early days.
While Valkyrie won’t launch him back into the cool guy spotlight, it’s not going to hurt his career. If anything, he’s lucky to ride on the Singer coattails, and we’re lucky they didn’t make him speak more German. Just sit back, focus on the good actors (Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard (!!), Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Thomas Kretschmann, and Carice van Houten, who is definitely an underused treasure, both in this film and in films in general), work on your one-handed Cruise impression, and allow yourself the singular pleasure of biting your nails and gripping your seat. Time will fly, I promise.