Few storylines where the ending is known can offer such rich material for a thriller as one centered on the most famous of the many plots to assassinate Hitler: its combination of dramatic personalities, a compressed timeframe, incredible political and historical stakes, and the dramatic irony that ensues because we know how the tale unravels, all make for thrilling reading, and by rights should have made for a compelling film. Instead, we get Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, which isn't bad by any means, but puzzlingly flat. So much so that nothing seems to matter in the film, or not enough to make one feel for any of the characters. Singer, in short, has successfully transposed the one-dimensional characters and stylish poseurs of previous directorial efforts like The Usual Suspects and X-Men; while leaving behind, respectively, the tautness and energy that made those two films so very enjoyable. The result is neither fish nor fowl: a thriller that is implicated in greater historical stakes, but lacks any inclination to rise to the occasion; and that is portentous enough to rule out the easy consumer-friendliness of the Big Hollywood Blockbuster.
I've now made Valkyrie sound worse than it probably is, so let's begin again: Singer's film (written by Christopher McQuarrie) is based on the most famous of the many plots to assassinate Hitler (the "Valkyrie" of the title refers to the Nazi government's contingency plan to seize key institutions and installations in the event of a breakdown of law and order, whether caused by internal or external forces; the plot centered on using this same contingency plan to take control of the government from the Nazis), and revolves around one of the plot's prime movers, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), the man chosen to actually detonate the bomb that was to kill Hitler. Before long, of course, everything begins to go awry: Hitler survives the assassination attempt, some of the plotters lose their nerve, the Nazi state apparatus proves rather resilient, and the plot fails; virtually all the ringleaders, including von Stauffenberg, are executed by firing squads.
Nope, the film remains a disappointment.
I had initially thought that Valkyrie stumbles because of poor pacing, but in retrospect it is the writing and dialogue that lets this film down: by this late date, you simply can't pull off a film that tackles this loaded subject if you're not going to attempt any characterization more profound than that found in superhero comic books. Thus we get a von Stauffenberg who is (no pun intended) lily white in his motivations, his love for Germany, and his disgust at the Nazi regime's crimes. In the run-of-the-mill actioner, this could be a stock hero (albeit an anachronistic one even in this genre), but von Stauffenberg was a real figure, and one searches in vain for any acknowledgment of his Catholic conservatism, or the fact that he seems to have turned against Hitler rather late in the game, when it seemed very unlikely that Germany could win the war. And Valkyrie goes further, giving us a von Stauffenberg liberal enough to be disgusted about the genocide of the Jews in one throwaway line. I find such an outlook on the historical von Stauffenberg's part somewhat implausible, but in any event the cheap invocation of this idea in a single dialogue is symptomatic of Singer's and McQuarrie's breezy approach to their material (and there's more: Hitler murmurs that National Socialism couldn't be understood without understanding Wagner; talk about flogging dead horses). What this lack of any seriousness means is that ultimately, one does not much feel for von Stauffenberg's death, because one hasn't felt much of anything over the course of the film. Indeed Cruise hasn't been able to convince one he has felt much of anything over the course of enacting the role of the doomed rebel.
As noted above, X-Men is not irrelevant to Valkyrie. The visual idiom of that fantastic superhero film appears to inform Valkyrie, with Cruise continually framed in comic book poses, and pregnant pauses announcing the significance of the one-liners to follow. Indeed the likes of Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Rogue clearly appear to be more complex characters than von Stauffenberg is here. The rest of the cast is pretty much in the same boat (none more so than Terence Stamp (playing Ludwig Beck, the guiding light of the plot)), except for Kenneth Branagh, who is wasted in an utterly inconsequential role here.
Despite "big Hollywood's" best attempts to kill it, the underlying source material is so dramatic that the second half of the film does intermittently engage the viewer's interest, as von Stauffenberg leaves the scene of the assassination attempt convinced that he has killed Hitler -- we know he's wrong, but back in Berlin some of von Stauffenberg's co-plotters also seem to have lost their nerve: so thorough is Hitler's domination of the political landscape that General Olbricht (Bill Nighy) can't seem to bring himself to conceive that the man he has spent years trying to kill is dead. Not surprisingly, the film doesn't explore any of these undercurrents: Olbricht's indecision is merely meant to set the stage for von Stauffenberg's heroic return to Berlin to jumpstart the attempted coup -- one needs a hero to get anything done right! [It is also meant to set up a cheap "what if?" moment: could the plot have worked had the likes of Olbricht done what they were supposed to? The question is meant to be asked breathlessly, but this viewer couldn't bring himself to care.]
Ultimately, one has to ask oneself what motivated Singer and Cruise to make this film: there can be no dearth of thriller scripts in Hollywood, and both of them must have known that this surely isn't Oscar material. So why bother with this expensive and time-consuming exercise in making a passable and rather pointless film? That mystery will likely never be solved.