Wednesday, December 31, 2008


The new Tom Cruise movie "Valkyrie," a dutiful but dreary reenactment of the 20th July 1944 Hitler bomb plot is no blast. Clocking in at a tedious two hours, this military procedural potboiler about the last of 15 flawed efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler displays immaculate production values and a first-class cast. Nevertheless, "Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer serves up no thrills or chills. Further, "Valkyrie" provides no surprises or suspense, primarily because we know already that the pusillanimous generals botched the bomb plot.

Mind you, "Valkyrie" isn't the first movie about the fateful events leading up to another bungled German Army High Command conspiracy to kill Hitler and salvage the Third Reich. The Germans themselves produced an award-winning, made-for-TV movie "Stauffenberg" about the Hitler bomb attempt in 2004. Previously, CBS-TV aired "The Plot to Kill Hitler" with "Midnight Express" star Brad Davis playing Colonel von Stauffenberg in 1990. The bomb plot played a peripheral role in the Richard Burton World War II film "Breakthrough" (1978) with Robert Mitchum. The classic Peter O'Toole World War II thriller "The Night of the Generals" (1967) contained a subplot about von Stauffenberg's fiasco. Earlier, back in 1955, West German filmmakers unveiled the first theatrical version of the same events entitled "The Plot to Assassinate Hitler" with Wolfgang Priess starring as von Stauffenberg. Even if World War II film fanatics haven't heard of Priess, they have seen him in several W.W. II films, notably "The Longest Day," "A Bridge Too Far," "Raid on Rommel," and "Von Ryan's Express."

"Valkyrie" opens in Tunisia, North Africa 1943, with the German Army's 10th Panzer Division in the desert. Colonel von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) writes in his diary about his determination to kill Hitler and save lives. Later, he speaks with a Wehrmacht officer general who resembles Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, but this officer (Bernard Hill of "Titanic") clearly isn't the legendary Desert Fox. Moments later, British fighter planes swoop down to strafe and bomb the Germans. Explosions kill the Rommel looking general while von Stauffenberg loses his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. Miscast as he is, Tom Cruise earns some credit for playing a radically different type of hero than he usually plays. However, the top-notch British and German actors who surround him blow him off the screen with their heavyweight performances. Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and even comedian Eddie Izzard upstage him at every turn.

After von Stauffenberg recovers from his wounds, he joins the general staff of General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy of "Underworld") and fellow conspirators Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh of "Henry V") and General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp of "Yes Man") tap him to devise a better plan to kill Hitler. Ironically, von Stauffenberg concocts a new plan when he is reunited with his family on holiday. His children spin a copy of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" on their turntable. Allied bombers break up the reunion and the needle skips off the 78 RPM record. As he huddles in an air raid shelter, von Stauffenberg hears the tone arm skip back to play the Wagner opera and his eyes glitter. The generals approve of von Stauffenberg's plan to mobilize Hitler's reserve army--codenamed 'Valkyrie'--to help them take control of the Third Reich after they have killed the dastardly dictator. Our hero sets about the task of recruiting more members for the conspiracy and devising an explosive charge that will kill Hitler. Unfortunately, von Stauffenberg begins to see why all previous assassinate attempts failed. The political and military titans of the conspiracy lack conviction and quarrel about petty details. The indecision on the part of these conspirators and von Stauffenberg's own crusade to kill the little corporal seal their doom and safeguard Hitler.

Technically, while "Valkyrie" is correct in every respect with regard to history, Singer and writers Christopher McQuarrie of "The Usual Suspects" and newcomer Nathan Alexander have made a thriller than generates monotony more often than momentum. "Valkyrie" plays out in rooms and on roads. We watch German officers get out of either planes or cars, march into buildings, enter rooms, and talk, talk, talk. Afterward, we watch these same officers exit rooms, walk out of buildings, get into either cars or planes, and head off to other interiors where they babble some more. Incredibly, there are only two quotable lines in the entire movie! Singer and company provide a few scenes between our hero and his wife, but each lacks intimacy because they are either disrupted by a bombing raid or music drowns out their dialogue.

Worse, Adolf Hitler (David Bamber of "The Bourne Identity") spends most of his time on screen puttering about in a daze. Why would any filmmaker trot out the most maniacal villain in 20th century history and reduce him to a simpering sad sack? Indeed, "Valkyrie" arouses more sympathy for Hitler than the people who proved themselves too incompetent to eliminate him. Ultimately, "Valkyrie" isn't so much a tragedy of errors as it is a humdrum movie about a conspiracy of well-meaning imbeciles who wanted to strike a bargain with the Allies before the Allied armies trampled the Fatherland. Anybody who knows their history knows about the newsreel footage of der Fuehrer stomping happily about after the debacle of the bomb attempt. Hitler is never shown performing this shtick.

Suffice to say, avoid "Valkyrie!"

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