There were fifteen known assassination attempts on the life of Adolph Hitler. Perhaps the best known is the scheme concocted by a number of high-ranking German officers, one that actually came near to succeeding about the same time the Allies landed on Normandy.
Led by Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a hero of the failed North African campaign, the group plotted to plant a bomb to explode at a Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair,” killing Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. Their deaths would set off a homeland defense policy, code-named “Valkyrie,” which would enable the defense reserves to take over Berlin, the nerve center of the Nazi empire.
The buzz around the film has centered upon Tom Cruise as von Stauffenberg, with some Germans objecting to the American box-office idol portraying a man now lionized as one of the resisters. The historical von Stauffenberg is considerably more complex than the movie can reasonably show, though director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander do imply the mixed motives which drove him.
Having lost an eye, part of his right arm, and two fingers n his left, Stauffenberg has both the ideal cover to plant the bomb intended for the Fuhrer and some real limitations on his ability to execute the plot. Singer cleverly emphasizes those limits as he focuses on von Stuaffenberg, eye patch prominent, claiming that he saw the bomb go off.
Problem is that, though the bomb did in historical fact explode, Hitler, whose portrait hovers continually in the film’s background, was not seriously injured. Though the conspirators came stunningly close to taking over Berlin, the movie emphasizes that the media of the time—the telephone and the radio—failed them. In effect, those who controlled the means of communication decided the scheme’s outcome. There are countless shots of characters talking on the phone.
The emphasis on the medium and the message slows down the action, somewhat. Those expecting an action movie will be disappointed, as the “war movie” segment ends after about five minutes. Instead, the tension becomes largely psychological, as the number of closeups indicates. “Valkyrie” is a surprisingly quiet film, its makers choosing to focus on the central characters agonizing choices about loyalty to his commander, the safety of his wife and children, the future of his country and Europe.
Cruise is acceptable in his role, and he has a strong, veteran supporting case to help him. Such luminaries as Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, and Tom Wilkinson take on important but minor roles. In fact, viewers might be uncertain about just who’s who and what his function in the plot is. Not until the end do we know some of their titles and power. Further, the fate of von Stauffenberg’s family, a major tension in the film, is resolved anticlimactically in its last frames.
“Valkyrie” is rated “PG-13,” a mark of the surprising restraint of its makers. Given the subject, this could have easily been a much more graphic, violent film, one that focused less on principle and more on bloodshed. Teens may well not be drawn to the movie, because of its slower pace and its historical complexity. Too bad, because this is a part of history that needs to be in all of our minds, when we need to choose, as one character says, principle over personal gain.