Big star. Big story. Big budget.
Yet “Valkyrie” has all the dramatic oomph of a History Channel re-enactment.
The new Tom Cruise/Bryan Singer movie isn’t bad. But it isn’t good.
Based on one of the lesser-known stories of World War II — a conspiracy of German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler with a suitcase bomb — “Valkyrie” stars Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg, an aristocrat whose tolerance of Nazi crimes and incompetence has hit the breaking point.
In an early scene set in North Africa we see Col. von Stauffenberg disobeying orders that would sacrifice his troops for no purpose. He’d rather have them retreat to fight when they have a chance of winning.
But his command is decimated in an attack by Allied aircraft, and von Stauffenberg loses an eye, his right hand and a couple of fingers on the left.
Detailed to a desk job, he is sucked into a percolating anti-Hitler conspiracy where he quickly becomes the voice for action. He goads his fellow plotters into initiating Operation Valkyrie, a plan to kill Hitler and seize control of the German government from the Nazi Party by mobilizing reserve forces stationed in Berlin. The new government can then sue for peace.
Like a police procedural, “Valkyrie” is obsessed with the details of the conspiracy — everything from how the bomb’s blasting caps must be crimped with pliers specially designed for von Stauffenberg’s mutilated hand to the subterfuges required to get Hitler to unwittingly sign a new directive that will allow the conspirators to control the army.
Military bigwigs are delicately approached to see if they’re willing to join the plotters, and there’s much argument and nervous hesitation about whether, how and when to strike.
“Valkyrie” has a deep supporting cast — Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard and Terrence Stamp — but none makes much of an impression. Singer’s direction and the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander never step away from the conspiracy long enough for us to know them as people.
Even Cruise’s von Stauffenberg remains an enigma. We see him briefly with his wife and children (who will become fugitives if the plot fails), but mostly he’s a stiff, all-business militarist.
The real von Stauffenberg was a complex character — a nationalist who believed German military might had been squandered by the Nazis, a devout Roman Catholic who opposed Hitler’s coercion of the church, a moralist offended by Nazi views on racial superiority. But none of those motives come through here — like all the characters, he’s been reduced to a uniform.
“Valkyrie” does build some suspense when the assassination plot reaches its critical phase, and there’s a moment of jubilation when the conspirators think they’ve pulled it off.
History, of course, tells a different tale. Lots of money has been spent on “Valkyrie.” Singer periodically cuts away from the intimate conversations of the assassins to show hundreds of German troops racing around or standing in formation. The sets, costumes and props create an utterly believable environment.
Yet this fascinating slice of history never does come to life.