Hollywood has been mining Nazi villains for decades. Even before Hitler was dead and buried, you could take a character, put a swastika on his arm and give him some shiny black jack boots and—vuala!—a perfect, easily identifiable bad guy. Colonel Deitrich from Indiana Jones, Dr. Christian Szell from Marathon Man, and even Major Strasser from Casablanca have all done their part to create the caricature of 'Nazi' that we have today. Nazi equals bad.
So one might think that a film about 'good' Nazis—whose blood boils with so much hatred for Hitler that you might mistake them for Americans—would turn the tables on our old iconic villain. But alas, Valkyrie, the story of one of the attempts on Hitlers life, is told with the same simplistic reductions of historical morality that make us feel good. Some Nazis equal good; some Nazis equal bad.
You don't have to be a history buff to know that the real story is going to be more interesting than the fictionalized fluff. And this seems more than true in the case of Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. As might be apparent with that name, Claus von Stauffenberg was born into an wealthy aristocratic family. He started his military career at a young age, and although he was extremely nationalistic, Stauffenberg (a practicing Catholic) was sympathetic to religious freedom and moral justice. His discontent with the Nazi Party was no secret, and he had been approach very early to join the resistance movement. It was only after he was injured in Africa in 1943 that he was willing to help those against Hitler.
Most of the complexities of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is completely lost in Valkyrie which demands you only know one thing about about him: that he is an unwavering hero. The intricacies of his character are never revealed for fear we might forget that he is the good guy. Because Stauffenberg is represented as an archetype, I found his character superficial and unmoving. Tom Cruise's performance doesn't help much. With his million dollar smile sidelined, Cruise remains resolutely serious—as in, Nazi serious; as in, I'm-a-gonna-kill-Hitler serious. Physically, he is about as animated as a toy soldier. With his hand withdrawn up his sleeve and his chest puffed out, Cruise is stiff as a board thoughout the entire movie.
To Bryan Singer's credit, he seems to want to tell a story unhindered by over the top drama or exaggerated action. Hitler and Goebbels are portrayed with apathy and without a patronizing introduction. Ticking off historical signposts and maintaining an authentic production (except for the weird mish-mash of English accents) seem to be Singer's main concerns, even if it is dry and unemotive. But the film carries such an even tone that when it come to a moment of supposed drama (such as Stauffenberg's revealing of his stump in an exaggerated heil Hitler!), it falls completely flat. Same goes for the dramatic ending in which I have no idea what Stauffenberg says, but does it really matter?
Valkyrie has been rife with controversy from the get go. Singer wanted a smaller project, but signing Tom Cruise sent it in the other direction. The poster boy for Scientology not only allowed the budget to blossom, but also caused protests among Stauffenbreg's family. Poor response to the film cause schedule changes that I mostly lost track of. Valkyrie is certainly not the film that is should be, but nor is it the film that it wants to be. Historically this is pretty interesting stuff, but it's peddled out the tepid simplicity that Singer should have saved for X-Men 3.