When the heroes of your movie are in the upper ranks of Nazi military officialdom, you’d better have a good reason.
“Valkyrie” does: This film is an account of the plot to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, by Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and other disenchanted members of the German military. Since we know the plot failed, the film needs to work as an exercise in suspense.
Tom Cruise stars as Stauffenberg, whom we first meet getting shot to pieces in the North African desert. After losing an eye and a hand, Stauffenberg emerges with a new interest in joining the German resistance against Hitler.
The script by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander is best at detailing the preparations for the assassination attempt, as Stauffenberg is slowly drawn into a circle of aristocrats who realize that nothing can change for Germany unless Hitler is killed.
An important part of the plan is what happens after Hitler is dead: The conspirators have a careful schedule for removing the SS from power and re-organizing the military in Berlin, so power could be transferred with a minimum of chaos. Even WWII buffs might not know the extent of those plans.
Director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) skillfully uses German locations, and his dispassionate style is useful for the meticulous preparations involved in the plot. Curiously, the film begins to lose its clockwork movement about halfway through, as though certain key scenes were missing.
Also, Singer doesn’t quite capture the tragic grandeur of a noble failure (in the way that a pop classic like “The Great Escape” does), even if the final sequences are effective. He seems reluctant to pump up the melodrama, but this sort of movie could use a bit of juice.
Chattering Internet prognosticators have been complaining about Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg for months, which makes me wonder whether they’ve noticed that Cruise is the kind of movie star that carries films like this. Get over it, already. He’s fine.
Other conspirators are played by Bill Nighy (getting a break from his run of comic roles and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” flicks), Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard. Tom Wilkinson, an expert in waffle roles, does nicely with an fficer who can’t commit to the plot.
“Valkyrie” itself seems reluctant to commit, somehow. That’s a serious issue for a movie where the stakes are literally life and death, and it prevents this film from riding higher.