Its been a while since Bryan Singer tried his hand at much of substance, with nothing coming close to his memorable shaggy-dog story, The Usual Suspects. His career has oscillated between big-screen blockbusters such as X-Men and TV drama, notably House and Dirty Sexy Money – both fun and commercially successful, perhaps, but not satisfying in an artistic sense.
His latest attempt is Valkyrie, an unsettling historical thriller in which the director attempts to break from the rut with something of lasting value, once again working with Usual Suspects screenwriter Chris McQuarrie. Sadly, both men seem to have shown a spectacular lapse in judgement.
Valkyrie follows the botched plot to assassinate Hitler and seize government by a small circle of high-ranking German political officials and military officers in the months after the commencement of the Allied invasion at Normandy in mid-1944. Led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), the plan involved manipulating Project Valkyrie, an executive order to mobilise the army reserves and quash any rebellion in the event of Hitlers death.
This is certainly not the first attempt to bring the story of the July 20 plot to screen, the most recent being Stauffenberg (2004), a German made-for-television film starring Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others). From a time that certainly didnt suffer any dearth of extraordinary events, its a fascinating story, particularly in light of the pervasive German cultural guilt of the subsequent half-century. But it is also a complex one, requiring a degree of sensitivity to the manifold contradictions at work in representing any Nazi in anything approaching a positive light.
To put it bluntly, Valkyrie has problems. McQuarries script largely avoids raising any questions of the plotters motivations. Stauffenberg, for example, came from a privileged background in the German aristocracy, maintained a glowing record within the Nazi war machine through the 1930s and the early stages of the war, and professed contempt towards the Poles, Jews and Gypsies while overseeing operations in occupied Poland. His later determination to kill Hitler and bring the war to an end only manifested itself after losing a hand and an eye in 1942 and cemented when it became obvious that the Axis was fighting a losing battle.
McQuarrie and Singer sidestep rather than address such moral question marks, instead pouring this deeply conflicted historical figure into the most readily available mould at hand, that of the self-sacrificing American (read: super) hero. When pitched against grand narratives of sacrifice for the fatherland, the messy complexities of historical reality dont get a look in. Thus we have references to Wagnerian opera (including the inevitably overused Ride of the Valkyries) and Germanic legend (notably Cruises one-eyed resemblance to Odin) alongside allusions to the Lord of the Rings (including a slightly painful cameo from Bernard Hill) and the comic book heroes on which Singer has built his name.
Perhaps the filmmakers think that their use of such references amounts to some kind of reclaiming of the symbols of Nazism in their quest to show that they werent all like that. However, what theyve actually done is the opposite, demonstrating just how much in common the modern American superhero film has with the grandiose myths of blood and iron, homeland and sacrifice which drenched the ideological framework of National Socialism. Lets not even mention the Holocaust Singer certainly makes sure that he doesnt.
All that said, the film is watchable, if only for some wonderful acting from the supporting cast. Bill Nighy provides a sympathetic foil to Cruises one-note action man as the dithering General Olbricht, with Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Christian Berkel (Downfall) and Eddie Izzard all excelling in their portrayals, Izzard particularly highlights unusually what a superb straight-actor he can be when given half a chance.
However, even they cant prevent the film from trundling with boring inevitably towards its preordained conclusion, the sight of Tom Cruise being executed by firing squad not quite enough to alleviate the soiled sensation that Valkyrie induces.