I loathe reviewing Tom Cruise films. It’s so difficult critiquing them objectively when Cruise is such a competent actor and yet so incompetent at life. For so many years, Cruise managed to maintain focus in his celebrity life, to stay on message, to keep those embarrassing tabloid stories under control. And although he lost that with his Katie Holmes courtship and his submersion into Scientology (a religion, I might add, that’s not any more or less crackpot than some of the more established ones — I’m talking to you, Mormons, with your magic, evil-thwarting undies), Cruise still maintains that focus in his acting life. You can say a lot about Tom Cruise, but his performances rarely ruin movies. Some of his movies aren’t as good as others, but with the exception of perhaps the early-career Cocktail and Legend, he doesn’t make embarrassing movies, nor does he turn in particularly embarrassing performances, at least when you compare them to other modern leading men, most of whom — save for Tom Hanks — have made an embarrassing film or two over the past decade (see, e.g., Will Smith’s Seven Pounds and Jim Carrey’s Yes Man). Tom Cruise is not a great actor (though, he’s had some great performances — Collateral, Jerry Maguire), but he’s not a bad one, either. He’s competent. Exceptionally so, in fact.
Moreover, Operation Valkyrie is an impressive story. And, in Valkyrie, Brian Singer has created an impressive movie. Tom Cruise, as ever, is competent as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the central figure in the final plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Still, I don’t blame the German people for their hostility toward the film. Nevermind that without Cruise’s (diminishing) clout and his own studio’s backing, the movie may not have been produced at all (nor would it have attracted the immense supporting talent), and nevermind the fact that Cruise brings as much exposure and as many people into theater seats as he turns away. The truth is, Germans are rightfully upset that one of their national heroes will now forever be associated with a man who leapt up and down on Oprah’s couch. It’s just a shame we can’t separate the man from the actor, because — for those capable of putting aside their real-life associations and put up the admission price — for two hours, Katie Holmes, Oprah, and Scientology will never enter your mind, although I can promise this to most of you: The increasing levels of tension may leave you with a jaw as sore as mine when you walk out, and you may wonder how many of the German men involved in the plot managed to get as far as they did without eating a gun.
Indeed, you may not know the details of Operation Valkryie, and you may have never heard of Colonel von Stauffenberg, but anyone with a passing knowledge of world history knows how the story will end. They just don’t know how or when, and credit Bryan Singer and his The Usual Suspects scriptwriter, Christopher McQuarrie, for making a movie as riveting and tense as Valkyrie, despite working with a conclusion that’s never in doubt. And yes: The accents are all over the place, but they’re consistent within the characters (some have American accents and some have British, don’t aske me why, but I don’t think it’s Cruise’s fault), but forget what you’ve heard about Tom Cruise’s performance. He doesn’t ruin Valkyrie — he’s a little over-earnest and, at times, a little too energetic for a decidedly somber movie, but when can you not say that about a Tom Cruise character? Besides, Valkyrie is the rare movie where the direction, the script, and world history cast a shadow over the actors.
The story is one, I imagine, that’s little known outside of Germany or college history classes. In the months leading up to the Normandy invasion, when it already appeared as though Germany would eventually lose the war, a group of high-level military men and politicians at odds with Hitler and his philosophy banded together with a common purpose: Fight not for Hitler, but for Germany. Their goal was to assassinate Hitler and orchestrate a fairly complicated overthrow of the government and then put themselves in a position of power and surrender to the Allies on sympathetic terms. The lynchpin in this conspiracy was Stauffenberg (Cruise), a wounded officer who was in charge of Germany’s Reserve Army. Operation Valkyrie was approved by Hitler as a means to use that Reserve Army to quell civil unrest in the event that Germany was bombed by the Allies. However, Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators altered the plan in such a way that, if successful in assassinating Hitler, they could use the Reserve Army to neutralize the SS and take over the government.
You don’t have to be a PhD in German history to know how it ends. But that doesn’t take away from the impact of the story and the obvious courage of the men involved. It’s a cold, clinical film but I appreciated Singer’s approach to the material over the approach a lot of other American directors would’ve taken — many would’ve overplayed the patriotic aspects of of the mission and turned Valkyrie into a jingoistic, flag-waving, war-hero flick with Bruce Willis playing the pivotal role. Singer’s movie is detached, and there’s no attempt to inject America’s brand of hoo-ra patriotic fervor into the storyline. It’s not an action-packed movie with big Oscar performances; it’s more in line with the German personality: Taut, no-nonsense, and efficient.
Indeed, Valkyrie is a seriously grim film one about a Very Important Event. Valkyrie may suffer from McQuarrie’s refusal to streamline the story, from the filmmakers’ refusal to get inside the minds of the participants and their motivations, and from the lack of any meaningful character development, but Operation Valkyrie wasn’t about the individuals and Singer wasn’t trying to create a character you could fall in love or sympathize with. From the perspective of history, Operation Valkyrie was more than the sum of its individuals; symbolically, it suggested that Germany during World War II had a little more underneath the hood than the Big Evil Dictator logo emblazoned upon it. The disappointment in the Operation lay less with the plight of the individual men and their failure to assassinate Hitler, and more in their failure to alter history for the better. Bryan Singer, likewise, wisely attaches more significance to the resistance than to the resistors, and the result is not a Tom Cruise Film, but an entertaining, suspenseful thriller that just happens to star a Tom Cruise.