Thursday, August 25, 2016

Valkyrie (2008)

Written at the time of the film's release.

"Tom Cruise Takes on Adolph Hitler, Single-Handed"
What do You Do About a 800 Lb Gorilla?

Man, they (the critics) have been rough on this movie and particularly Tom Cruise. It's been "Nacht der Langen Messer" for a lot of gossip columnists who fancy themselves critics (but had second-hand facts from their "sources").

Among the rumors that were cackled about was Cruise's lack of a German accent (there aren't any in the film and Singer makes a big show of having Cruise narrate the beginning of the film in German--a rather stilted, halting German--before transitioning to English), that he rather grossly takes out a glass eye in the film (he does—with his back turned to the camera), that he does a weird Nazi salute (his character—
the very real-to-history Count Von Stauffenberg—gets away with forgoing the usual "nicety" throughout the film until, in one of the film's best scenes, the War Minister (Tom Wilkinson) calls him on it—"I would hear you say it, Colonel"—and Stauffenberg, irritated that 1) he can't get away without it and 2) he's being forced to give allegiance to a man he's conspiring to kill, pointedly turns and yells the "Heil" while giving the standard right-handed salute—only he doesn't have a right hand, having lost it in the war, the stump of his arm protruding from his jacket, making a point. Good scene, that.

Look, I don't like Tom Cruise, either. His performances have dragged down many a movie, especially the vain-glorious ones. The man seems incapable of portraying more than one emotion at a time, and whenever his character must choose options Cruise falls back on an open-mouthed blank look.* Listening to him in interviews I get the impression that his acting process runs something like: "I have to do this, then I have to do this, then I have to do this, and then I have to do this."
But, though he's the King of Hollywood and the "Jesus Christ of Scientology," one could cut him some slack; none—none—of those rumors are true in the final analysis, and no one making those rumors is held accountable for them, shoddy and unprofessional as they are. But that's "Entertainment Reporting" for ya.**
Enough about the 800 pound top-gorilla. How's the movie? Good, actually. It is a true story (with a couple lies in it) and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and Director Bryan Singer (the team behind, and still trying to top, The Usual Suspects) lay everything out in a clear time-line, do their best to cast faces that have a 1940's German feel and maintain the illusion that it's that time and place. They keep the tension taut and make the most of the story's quirks and coincidences—the kind that make you say "if it weren't true, you couldn't write this." The fascination of the story is that the German bureaucracy that was running the war (badly, in the minds of the conspirators) was just as responsible for the conspiracy coming apart, and Stauffenberg was the only one with the Hoden who would push if there was any chance of success, both to his credit and the conspiracy's detriment. It's a real-life version of the "Mission: Impossible" scenario, something that Cruise is all-too familiar with.
What's nice is that the film-makers turn the process of pushing through policy-changes into tense set-pieces that have just as much verve as a pistol shoot-out. In fact, there is a small fire-fight later in the film and getting Hitler to sign a policy-change (the "Valkyrie" operation of the title) is far more exciting. And the central gambit—there's a satchel with a bomb in it that's set to go off in a room full of men—is the classic Hitchcock example of tension versus surpriseThe film is top-heavy with fine British actors: Wilkinson, Terence Stamp (another fine portrait of an ineffectual pol), Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard (!!), Ian McNeice, Bernard Hill, Tom Hollanderand Kenneth Branagh. That's a lot of impressive talent for a movie not written by Richard Curtis. And they're all spot-on. Branagh is particularly good as an initial conspirator who is whisked away to the front before the bombing of the Führerhauptquartier Wolfsschanze.
If there's a problem with the movie, it is Singer's sometimes too-elaborate direction—the most egregious example being a circular camera move that catches up to a record (and it's a 78!) so that it can stabilize on the label to read the word "Walkure" while the rest of the world keeps on spinning—an awful lot of effect for not much return. As such it parallels the story of the movie.*** The film of that story—of conscience over the brutal status quo—is much more successful.

* As opposed to Brad Pitt, another Hollywood pretty-boy, but who's managed to pick interesting roles (on occasion) and has grown as an actor of depth and subtlety. Something Cruise used to do. Cruise once was attached to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

** My favorite bit of bone-head journalism from Hollywood came from the "reporter" who asserted that Russell Crowe had gone off the deep-end because he said something about "Bob being his uncle." Shhyeah! Been out of Hollywood much? Then, there was MTV "reporter" Kennedy who asked Martin Landau what the heck HE was doing at the premiere of Tom Cruise's first Mission: Impossible movie, and he said "I was in the show!" to her stupefication. "You should READ about it" was his irritated reply.

*** There is such a rich vein of fascinating stories that came out of the ashes of World War II that would make compelling films. A similar story—of the elaborate civilian assassination of Hitler's "Golden Boy" (and probable successor) Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 I've always thought would make a compelling story of uprising. But one couldn't tell it without mentioning Hitler's utter crushing of the town of Lidice in reprisal for the attack. Update: You DID read the review of Anthropoid, didn't you? 

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