Historical thrillers work if the story, acting and direction can draw you into their world and make you forget about the fact you know how the story's going to end. Titanic, for me, fails because I kept waiting for the boat to hit the iceberg and sink. Oh - sorry, spoiler warning there. Anyway, the effective historical films I hold up as examples of working well include Changeling and The Last Samurai, and now I'd like to add Valkyrie to that list. The film stars Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terrance Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Thomas Kretschmann and Eddie Izzard.
Valkyrie is the story of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and the role he played in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, which took place on 20 July 1944. A war veteran wounded and somewhat mangled in action, Stauffenberg became embittered with the war and the motivation behind it. Contacted by the resistance movement within the Wehrmacht, Stauffenberg becomes one of the key figures in the assassination plot. The conspirators believe that Hitler's Germany is not the Germany of their fathers, nor is it one they wish to see continue, a sentiment which Stauffenberg shares. He helps in planning the assassination, delivers the explosive device to the meeting with Hitler and his aides and coordinates the resulting coup effort. If you're at all familiar with history, I think you know how it turns out.
Despite our foreknowledge of how this story ends, Valkyrie is still well presented and provides dramatic tension while fleshing out these historical figures who might otherwise be static images and two-dimensional accounts of their actions. This is due in no small part to director Brian Singer. The man who brought us The Usual Suspects again juggles a talented ensemble cast with great success, employing their skills to slowly build the tension before unleashing it on the audience with an almost blinding fury.
Normally this would be where I rag on Tom Cruise. However, like his performance in The Last Samurai, his personality and the drama surrounding him takes a back seat to the storytelling. Instead of dominating the picture simply by being Tom Cruise, he immerses himself in the role, the time period and the subject matter, which is dark and heroic at the same time. Moments and lines that could easily be blown out of proportion by another actor are handled with aplomb, and I don't recall Cruise chewing on the scenery once.
What stands out in Valkyrie, in addition to the ensemble storytelling and Cruise's grounded performance, is Hitler. The images and videos we tend to see is of a ranting madman. We know, in our minds, the atrocities he inflicted upon the world and to millions of innocent people. However, in this film, Hitler neither launches into bombastic diatribes nor cackles with delight at the slaughter of his enemies. Here, in pacing around a planning table or holding discussions with those few men he trusted, Hitler is quiet, seeming to choose his words carefully and evaluating the worth of human beings as if he was sizing up a pair of new shoes. His restraint and stature make him seem all the more menacing. It completes the package of the film, and contributes to its overall success.
If you have any interest in the second World War, the idea of Germans within the Nazi party fighting against the perceived desecration of their country or some extremely good portrayals of historical figures, Valkyrie belongs on your Netflix queue. It's a powerful story, well-acted and told without much hyperbole. It's a story for our time and it's well worth yours.
Oh, and additional spoiler warning: if you're not a fan of Tom Cruise, you get to see him blown up, strafed, nearly blown up again, wounded in a gunfight and finally executed by firing squad. That alone might be worth the price of admission.
Josh Loomis can't always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it's unclear if this week's film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain... IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.