‘Valkyrie’ Works Despite Distracting Superstar

January 23, 2009

Valkyrie stars Tom Cruiseas Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and that pretty much sums up the challenge this film faces.

That s not to say Cruise isn t a fine actor. In fact, his choice to play von Stauffenberg shows his sheer chutzpah and willingness to go out on a limb, a trait he has demonstrated throughout his career. Though blockbusters have been his bread and butter, Mr. Katie Holmes has consistently signed up for non-pretty-boy roles as well, such as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire or Frank T.J. Mackey, the unforgettable men s self-help guru in Magnolia.

But von Stauffenberg, the German officer who made an attempt on Adolf Hitler s life in 1944, is just too much of a stretch. Cruise turns in a solid, ultimately touching performance, but his famous face and unmistakable diction prevent him from disappearing into the character. He is distractingly North American.

His principal co-stars are stellar Brits: Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, the incomparable Tom Wilkinson, and David Bamber as Hitler. It would probably have been silly to have all these actors try on German accents for size, but their nationalities seem jarring.

One of the movie s repeated themes is that these men wanted to show the world that not all Germans supported Hitler, that not all of them are like him, so it s unfortunate that none of the major characters can truly challenge the stereotypes we may have about the people of Germany during World War II.

Nevertheless, that central message does get through eventually, thanks to the force of the story itself. As Operation Valkyrie takes shape and the movie gains momentum, it matters less and less who s playing the parts.

Bamber delivers the film s most interesting performance as a somewhat reflective, deliberate and thoroughly creepy Hitler and though we know the villain will make it through the assassination attempt, director Bryan Singer creates ample uncertainty and suspense as to how the outcome will unfold.

By the final third of the film, we re ready to hand Cruise our voluntary suspension of disbelief on a silver platter as we re absorbed in the moments that so narrowly failed to change the course of history. And by the time the credits roll, the film has us asking ourselves whether our own mettle would measure up in a time of international crisis.

All in all, Valkyrie works, despite its casting problems. And if Cruise s superstar heft helped bring this story to the screen, not to mention acquaint an international audience with von Stauffenberg s life, it s well worth it. One leaves the theater wishing for a documentary to provide the unfiltered story, especially when the final notes give us an interesting tidbit: von Stauffenberg s wife, Nina (Carice van Houten), whose days appear numbered at the end of the film, survived the war and died in 2006. Her life, sacrifice and patriotism, a subplot here, are worth a project all their own. That s another  biography I d like to see onscreen.

So long as it doesn t star Julia Roberts.

 

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