I know this is supposed to be a movie review and not a business report, but let’s just say up front that the budget for "Valkyrie," a based-on-fact thriller about the attempt by a group of German Army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944, was nearly 100 million dollars. Now 100 million buys you a lot when it comes to Hollywood – authentic period detail, on-location shooting in Germany, even a superstar for the lead like Tom Cruise.
So why is "Valkyrie" so relentlessly mediocre, despite the pedigree of director Bryan Singer and a screenplay co-written with Nathan Alexander by the Oscar-winning Christopher McQuarrie?
Let me count the ways – three in fact.
One: Tom Cruise is miscast as Colonel von Stauffenberg, the leader of the conspirators. Cruise can certainly act – you don’t receive three Oscar noms for acting if you can’t – but he simply exudes too modern and contemporary a presence to work in a period setting, and that undercuts our suspension of disbelief. Not helping is the decision to allow Cruise to speak with an American accent while practically everyone else speaks with a British one. It’s a matter of consistency - it’s OK if actors pretending to be Germans don’t speak with a German accent, as long as they all speak with the same accent, whatever it ends up being. If they speak with different accents, it calls attention to the fact that they are not Germans but actors playing Germans, and that once again undercuts suspension of disbelief.
Two: the motivation of von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators remains unclear. Von Stauffenberg didn’t decide to assassinate Hitler until 1944, when the war had already turned against Germany. Since "Valkyrie" doesn’t put forward an explanation for why von Stauffenberg waited so long to strike, the audience has no other choice but to assume that he and his comrades only decided to kill Hitler to save their own skins – if Hitler was gone, they could sue for peace with the Allies before they and their beloved Wehrmacht was destroyed. And such a far-from-altruistic motivation makes them difficult to root for as protagonists. Now it’s true the von Stauffenberg character does write in his diary how he was disgusted by Hitler’s persecution of the Jews amongst other crimes, but these are throwaway lines of dialogue that the film never returns to again, so they do little to convince the audience that von Stauffenberg truly cared about these things. Film is a visual medium, so "Valkyrie" should have shown von Stauffenberg witnessing Hitler’s murderous treatment of the Jews, prompting him to turn from loyal subject of the Reich to a rebel planning Hitler’s overthrow. This would have explained von Stauffenberg’s motivation much more clearly and made him a more sympathetic lead as well.
This issue also ties into reason number three: Hitler just doesn’t come off as that bad a guy in "Valkyrie." Strong villains make for strong movies, as a powerful, threatening heavy can give the audience someone to hate and/or fear, making them invest more emotionally in the plot. But in "Valkyrie," Hitler is portrayed as a wimpy, pathetic, seemingly beaten man, certainly not one capable of engendering hate or fear. We don’t see the titanic rage Hitler used to bend subordinates to his will; we don’t see how the policies Hitler enacted led to the persecution and murder of millions of innocent people (catch the German film DOWNFALL if you want to see how Hitler can be portrayed as an absolutely terrifying, but still three-dimensional, antagonist). So we really don’t cheer von Stauffenberg on to assassinate Hitler since Hitler and his SS cronies don’t seem any worse than von Stauffenberg and his cronies. Again, it simply appears as if von Stauffenberg is trying to knock off Hitler because Hitler is running the war badly, not because of any moral qualms about the way the Fuhrer is butchering his fellow man with impunity.
100 million dollars can buy you a lot of things, but as "Valkyrie" proves, it can’t always buy you a good movie.
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