The interesting thing about Tom Cruise is that no matter how much you might hate him in real life, it is easy to forget that as you watch him on screen. I suppose it really does depend on the film but, for the most part, Cruise brings so much intensity and gusto to the parts he plays that he's nearly unrecognizable. His role in Valkyrie is the perfect example of this fascinating phenomenon.
Cruise plays good guy, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer plotting to assassinate Hitler. After getting blown up in the opening, Stauffenberg is forced to wear an eye-patch for the rest of the film, a wardrobe necessity that mars Cruise’s effortless beauty and no doubt creates an impediment to his acting. Regardless, Cruise shines in his first meaty role in years. He's completely believable as a German Colonel with intense faith in “Sacred Germany”. He's a man willing to protect it at any cost, even if it means murdering the most powerful leader of his time.
The film opens with Stauffenberg writing in his journal about how disappointed he is in the way the war is going. He laments, “This is not my country.” Tom Cruise’s voice shows up as he speaks German that transitions into English in what seems to be a subtle hint that people featured in this film would have, certainly, been speaking German and not English. Cruise gets blown up shortly after that and, after getting shipped back to his hometown, starts keeping company with a bunch of politicians and few military men that are trying to get Hitler out of the way. There is some discussion about trying to reason with Hitler in order to get him to stop the genocide of innocent people, but the military men react strongly to this preposterous approach and start planning the details of the assassination. Stauffenberg takes control of the entire affair, in true military fashion, and decides to implement the reserve army, the Valkyrie, for the purposes of his cause.
It is obvious why writers Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander decided to focus on the character of Stauffenberg. The combination of German-military disposition and purely good motivation is truly compelling. In the film Stauffenberg will go to any length to stop who he believes to be the spawn of Satan. His plan is ludicrously dangerous and sure to get him killed, but his conviction is beautiful and his attempt beyond admirable. Even as the politicians of the film cower in fear of his plan to take over the country by using the Valkyrie, he is valiant in his efforts. One man had the courage to stand up to the cruelest military institution of all time. To hear the story of Stauffenberg is to be inspired, and to watch Tom Cruise embody him is to be awed.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't fare as well as Cruise's performance. As a casual viewer (one that is most certainly not a WWII historian) the movie takes on the feel of an extremely confusing game. Cruise is supposed to get Hitler to sign something that will somehow change the purpose of Valkyrie, but I’m not really sure how. Valkyrie is only implemented upon Hitler’s death, but is intended to uphold his military purpose. How Stauffenberg could change the parameters of Valkyrie enough to make them work for him is a mystery to me, especially in a film that never really unpacks its plot.
While watching Valkyrie you can be almost positive that Stauffenberg will die before the end of the film, and since you already know where it's going a lot of tension is lost. That lack of suspense, in a film that is at its root so informational, might leave you feeling bored in spite of a great performance from Tom Cruise.
After his preposterous appearances in flicks like War of the Worlds and Mission Impossible III, Tom Cruise’s career was starting to look like a wash. However, after his tight little cameo in Tropic Thunder all he needed was a final push to get back into the good graces of audiences. Valkryie isn’t just a push, it is a sucker punch in the face of his haters. Although he is a revelation in this film, and the character he plays is fascinating, there isn’t enough else here to really thrust it over into classic-WWII-drama territory. The story is pretty dry and since we know how it will end, there isn’t any real suspense to juice up the ride. If you desperately want to know the story of Valkyrie, rent the DVD, but prepare to be intermittently bored.
The disc contains one sixteen minute making-of featurette, one 42 minute History Channel documentary on the German resistance, and two audio commentaries, one with Tom Cruise, the director and one of the writers, the other with the two writers. There are no deleted scenes, but the featurettes more than make up for this lack.
The first featurette, titled “The Journey to Valkyrie” unpacks the making of the film, from germination to final scene. There is one portion of the featurette in which the crew gets to film on the sacred land that the resistance was actually executed on. Cruise talks about how he would not have done the film if they had not gotten to film on that location. Cruise and some of the crew give speeches before they start shooting on this location and it is quite moving. It is clear that everyone involved in the making of this film truly believed in what they were doing, which is always refreshing. Lots of interview footage with Cruise lends even more to the legitimate feel of this making of doc.
After the short making of documentary comes the much longer History Channel doc about the real life people that Valkyrie’s characters are based on called “The Valkyrie Legacy.” This is probably the highlight of the entire disc. I might have rather watched this highly informative documentary than have watched the film. The narrator speaks of the resistance starting out as a tiny enterprise consisting of philosophers and clergymen, that blossomed into what it appears as in Valkyrie. Although the narrator often speaks of these men as if they were angels and not human at all, the reason for his wonder is no mystery, these men were brave beyond belief. Not too long, super informative and filled to the brim with pertinent interviews (even some with Stauffenberg’s son!), this documentary is just right.
As commentaries go, the one with Cruise, Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie is fairly boisterous. It is interesting to hear the trio’s take on contextualizing the story for the audience, why the film wasn’t in German and how hot Tanzania is. There were numerous times when Singer stepped on Cruise’s toes by blowing right past something he was saying and changing the topic. This, however, just made for a more interesting dynamic. There is even a part in there about how they didn’t keep a bit in the film in which Stauffenberg defiantly won’t take morphine because he didn’t want to become addicted to it. Apparently, they did not include this in the film because of people’s perception of Cruise being heavy-handedly anti-drug. Needless to say, there was a pregnant pause/awkward silence after McQuarrie spilled those beans.
After listening to the commentary with Cruise, Singer and McQuarrie, the second commentary with McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander becomes pretty much superfluous. I am a believer that actors can really amp up the excitement level on a commentary and this pair of commentaries is only a testament to that. The writers go over the same details that the previous commentary covers, which in itself is somewhat of a crime. Not only that, but they don’t have nearly as much fun as they do on the other commentary. Bonus points go to McQuarrie for being a trooper and speaking over both commentaries.