Tuesday, January 06, 2009


To say that Tom Cruise has been the subject of a huge popular backlash would be a severe understatement, but should an artist’s public antics and religious (cultist?) beliefs colour the perception of their art? I know many people (particularly Jews) who refused to see Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto due to his alleged bigotry. Gibson might be a bigot, a sexist and an anti-Semite, but I could care less about this; it doesn’t change the fact that Apocalypto is a great action film with possibly the best foot-chase I’ve ever seen. By the same token, Cruise’s couch jumping and Scientological rantings do not change the fact that his new film, Valkyrie, was the best thriller of the past year.

Valkyrie is the story of the July 20th plot by senior military and political officials within the Nazi fold to assassinate Adolf Hitler and seize control of Germany. The plot itself is quite elaborate (involving the forced order of a contingency plan called Operation Valkyrie), and seeing how far it was able to go before ultimately being crushed is stunning. If only a few small things had not gone wrong, the war would have ended sooner and millions of lives could potentially have been spared.

I would hope that everyone knows enough history to realize the plot fails, so in a way, the ending of the film is already spoiled; luckily, this film is in Bryan Singer’s hands. Coming off of the mostly disappointing Superman Returns, the director has crafted a thriller based on the conceit that everybody knows the ending. As such, the suspense must come from the dreaded anticipation of the inevitable outcome; it is a gutsy move that few directors would likely attempt. In Valkyrie, Singer combines the tone and conventions of classic war thrillers such as The Dirty Dozen with the contemporary style and sleek effectiveness of modern thrillers. Once the assassination plot begins rolling, the suspense builds and builds with the audience picking apart the plan like a puzzle, trying to find all the areas where it crumbles apart. The ending of the film also strikes a powerful chord that sells home the moral substance of the film: there were good people within Germany at the time, and - more importantly - many of those people did stand up for what was right, risking (and losing) everything in the process.

Valkyrie is filled with an almost sickening number of amazing actors. Tom Ctruise heads the cast as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the mastermind behind the plot to kill Hitler. His performance has come under attack for many reasons, namely his lack of accent and even his star-power being a distraction. These reasons are silly and miss the mark. Though his performance is not necessarily on the level it was in Magnolia, Cruise is very good here and provides a kind of detached relatability that only a true movie star can. Supplementing Cruise here are Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard and Tom Wilkinson. All notable British character actors who do a marvelous job of selling the additional characters and their motivations.

The only weak element I can find with the film is Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay. It isn’t a bad screenplay by any means, but it isn’t amazing, and it is certainly not on par with The Usual Suspects, McQuarrie’s previous collaboration with Singer. The dialogue is the real culprit here, but luckily the direction and acting are good enough to overcome the writing and even make lines as ridiculous as, “You cannot understand National Socialism if you do not understand Wagner,” simply delicious.

It is often hyperbolic to say “I was glued to my seat,” but in the case of Valkyrie, I truly was. Valkyrie is dreadfully suspenseful and is the most effective thriller of 2008. It is filled with great performances, fantastic direction, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone willing to overlook Cruise’s public persona in order to enjoy a taut thriller that tells one of the more fascinating stories of World War II. Plus: a movie about a guy with an eye-patch trying to kill Hitler? Can you ask for more?

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