Tom Cruise is back! But did he ever really go away? He's spent the last few years as more of a tabloid figure than a box office draw, but the magnetism and and intensity that made him a gigantic movie star have never left him. In Valkyrie he takes a role that could have turned ludicrous-- an American in an eyepatch playing a German hero-- and makes it riveting. That goes double for the movie itself, which once again proves Bryan Singer's unassailable skill as a director, crafting a suspenseful and exciting story out of an ignored bit of history.
The whole thing is made with a no-nonsense, stripped-down attitude you imagine John Wayne would appreciate. It starts with the accents-- everyone keeps their natural inflections, including Cruise, which makes for an interesting mix of Brits, Americans and Germans who still fit in together nicely. And except for a brief prologue set in Tunisia, where protagonist Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) loses his eye and most of his fingers in a air raid, the story sticks within the close confines of Berlin's military headquarters, where Stauffenberg and a cohort of conspirators use their insider status to plot Hitler's demise. Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) has already made a failed attempt on the Fuhrer's life with a bomb hidden inside a gift, and introduces Stauffenberg into his secret circle of conscientious objectors, including Olbricht (Bill Nighy) and retired general Beck (Terence Stamp). On the eve of D-Day in 1944, the group devises a scheme to defeat Hitler through use of the top-secret plan Operation Valkyrie.
The plan is a bit too complicated for proper explanation within the film, and involves a few too many characters to keep track of, but the basic details are pretty simple. If these guys can kill Hitler, Operation Valkyrie allows the military to take over the country due to a "national emergency." After getting Hitler to approve an edited version of Operation Valkyrie (in a particularly spine-tingling scene), Stauffenberg plans to set off a bomb at the Wolf's Lair, an enclosed bunker where Hitler held high-security briefings. Stauffenberg and the other conspirators enlist the help of telecommunications chief General Eric Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) and a more reluctant General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), who turns a blind eye more so than he provides any help.
There's one aborted assassination attempt before the real one takes place on July 20, and both are tightly scripted, expertly staged bits of action. Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie waste little time reminding us of the Serious Moral Implications of what Stauffenberg and company are about to do; the Hitler assassination angle is just a bonus element of what, in some sections, feels like a really good heist story. When the assassination appears to have succeeded, and Stauffenberg returns to Berlin to begin restructuring the government, the story expands without ever losing its sharp, pared-down efficiency.
Carice van Houten pops up in a fairly thankless role as Stauffenberg's wife, as the movie wisely moves most of the focus to the conspirators and the relationships among them. The performances are all strong if unexceptional, and Cruise fits right in, never letting an overacting tendency get the best of him. The script moves a little too swiftly sometimes when introducing these characters, and it's a good thing so many of them are famous, so that we can tell them apart. Except for a brief voiceover from Stauffenberg in the beginning, none of the men really express their precise oppositions to Hitler, and it's never clear how so many of them have served the German army for so long, and been so opposed to Hitler, without being found out.
But what keeps Valkyrie so light on its feet is an appreciation for history, not slavish devotion, so that timelines can be condensed and characters excised with the basic, thrilling story intact at its center. It doesn't have anything grand or new to say about World War II, other than revealing the existence of Germans who actively fought against Hitler during the war. But it's refreshing in its lack of pomp and circumstance, a movie that exists to be a movie and nothing bigger. Amid a flood of World War II movies this December, Valkyrie is by far the most entertaining and satisfying.