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Valkyrie

Bryan Singer’s film Valkyrie has been getting a bit hammered in the press lately.  (Actually, I feel like I’ve been reading bad things about this movie for over a year, mostly in connection to the multiple shifts in its release date, which usually indicates a studio’s having lost faith in the film.)  I think a lot of people felt that the do-no-wrong wunderkind who made The Usual Suspects and the first two enormously successful X-Men films had stumbled a bit with Superman Returns, and they smelled blood in the water.  That pile-on attitude also extended to the film’s star, Tom Cruise, who as I’m sure you all know has had a rough time of it over the past year or two in the press.

Well, I’d advise you to leave those pre-conceived negative notions at the door, because Bryan Singer, Tom Cruise, and a phenomenal ensemble of British actors have made a fine film for you to enjoy.

Valkyrie re-tells the true story of the group of German officers who, in 1944, attempted to kill Hitler and wrest control of Germany from the SS.  I don’t think I have to tell you that the plan failed.

Much of the criticism of the film has centered on the casting of Tom Cruise as the central figure in the story, Claus von Stauffenberg.  Since one would be hard pressed to name an actor who seems more strongly associated with modern-day America (maybe Will Smith??), he seemed a bizarre choice to play the German main character.  Furthermore, he is surrounded by a cadre of other familiar, mostly British faces as his German co-conspirators.  If you closed your eyes while watching this film it would be difficult to guess that you’re watching a movie about Germans.

But everyone should just relax about this.  The film makes clear early on that everything is meant to be taking place in German (by fading from the German dialogue of the opening moments into English).  Far from a hindrance, I actually think casting the main group of Germans with American and British actors is a smart idea — it makes it easier for the audience to connect with and sympathize with these characters, which is important for our engagement with the story being told.  Would this film be a stronger movie if it was all told in German with English subtitles?  I don’t think it would.

Frankly, the biggest thing that Valkyrie has going against it is it’s release date.  By coming out at this time of year, surrounded by so many other SERIOUS-with-capital-letters Oscar-hopeful films, it becomes easy to dismiss.  Because, while this film does have something to say, and an important story to tell, this is not a somber film in the style of say, The Reader (about which I’ll be writing at length next week).  This is not Schindler’s List, and this is not The Pianist. Although Valkyrie is set during the second World War, I wouldn’t consider this film to be one of those deep message movies about the horrors of that war.  Valkyrie isn’t really a war movie of any kind — you should really think of it as a HEIST film.

For me, the pleasures of this film were in the unfolding of THE HEIST — the plan, that is, to eliminate Hitler.  The conspirators have a GOAL, and they need to figure out how to accomplish that.  Like a great heist film, Mr. Singer takes us through the process of assembling the plan, and with great detail we follow all the characters through on the attempt and see how they respond when things begin to go wrong.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Ocean’s Eleven in Germany.  This is real life, and this is a story that ends in real tragedy.  There is a lot of drama in watching the characters meet their ultimate, unfortunate ends, and in contemplating JUST HOW CLOSE they came to really getting away with it all.  It is one of the great historical what-ifs to ponder how history might have been different had they succeeded.

I alluded to the terrific cast above, and before I wrap up it is worth elaborating on that.  Take a gander at this group of actors:  Kenneth Branagh (Dead Again, Othello, Hamlet, and more recently Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) , Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Hot Fuzz, Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean films and of course Slartibartfast in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, Batman Begins, Michael Clayton), Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong), the amazing comedian Eddie Izzard, and Terence kneel before Zod himself Stamp.  That is an illustrious group, and they all do great work here.

When comparing Valkyrie to a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which I so rapturously reviewed yesterday), one must admit that Valkyrie seems rather slight.  As I wrote above, by releasing it amongst all these other Oscar films, I think the studio has done it a disservice.  (I’d wager that people would be thinking a lot more highly of Valkyrie if it was opening in March.)  This is not a GREAT film.  It is, however, a highly enjoyable and very well-made one, and it’s worth your time.

(But see Benjamin Button first!)

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