Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg — a lot of name for a lot of guy. Born into aristocracy in 1907, he was a soldier by the age of 19 and, by most accounts, a warrior with the soul of a poet (he was especially smitten with the work of Stefan George, a family friend) who'd briefly considered becoming an architect before deciding, “Right, duty first.” Hence his quick ascension through the ranks, as befitting a soldier born in a castle.
Depending upon which account you read, Stauffenberg was either against the Nazis from the get-go or merely a distant detractor at first. In his book The History of the German Resistance, 1933–1945, historian Peter Hoffmann (who receives a prominent thanks in Valkyrie's end credits) suggests that perhaps the country-firster even “welcomed and supported the Nazi regime,” as he never spoke openly of his contempt for Hitler's National Socialists. But history offers myriad interpretations. Several stories have Stauffenberg, himself never a member of the party, plotting to kill Hitler as early as 1942, after he'd witnessed the mass murders committed by the Nazis during the invasion of the Soviet Union. Others suggest he wasn't on his way to becoming a committed coconspirator until April 1943, when, during a stint in Africa, his regiment was attacked by British bombers, whose machine guns robbed the good soldier of his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers on his left.
That attack is where Valkyrie director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie — the duo previously responsible for The Usual Suspects — begin their telling of Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1944. (Nathan Alexander is also credited as a writer.) The lieutenant-colonel, played by Tom Cruise, argues with a superior about how all is lost out here in the sand and insists that it's time to retreat. A moment later, the higher-up is dead, as are most of Stauffenberg's men. And so he is reborn a sworn enemy of the Führer.
But what truly fueled Stauffenberg's desire to kill Hitler — his breeding, that bleeding, or just his fear of the approaching Allies, who were already in France — is a question in which Valkyrie has little interest. This is no more of a character study than Cruise's Mission: Impossible franchise was a three-part examination into the soul and psyche of Ethan Hunt. It pops up corn and serves it in a crystal bowl; this is cineplex hooey, a footnote in history rendered shiny and wide-screen to prove that Cruise, studio chief and actor, is in control and that Singer can do more than men-in-tights movies.
The intentions are noble: to make a hero of the forgotten man who tried to seize control of Germany and broker a truce with the Allies. But Valkyrie doesn't spend much time memorializing Stauffenberg; this isn't really Oscar fare, even though its based-on-a-true-story baggage, period clothing, location setting, and reputable A-list cast suggest as much. What to do with a movie that is impossible to spoil (you do know the ending, right?) and winds up with the hero being assassinated by a coward? (Didn't work out very well for that Jesse James movie last year, either — I mean, the ending was right there in the title.)
The supporting performances are uniformly top-notch by all actors wearing uniforms — especially Bill Nighy as General Friedrich Olbricht, the true ringleader of the plot, but also its Achilles' heel at crucial moments. Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, as the equally craven but also crueler General Friedrich Fromm, bring gravitas to Valkyrie — kind of like Philip Seymour Hoffman in M:I III, who seemed to have filmed his scenes with one hand in the ATM. Nighy and Wilkinson are playing opposite ends of Valkyrie's spectrum. Where Olbricht is brazen about his attempts to use Germany's reserve army to seize Berlin from the SS (Operation Valkyrie, ahem), Fromm pretends he doesn't know what's going on, as though silent compliance would somehow spare him from a Führer who'd take his own life months later. Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Izzard, as compatriots in the conspiracy, are more or less the Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg of Valkyrie, which is to say “perfectly fine” and “absolutely inconsequential.”
As for Cruise, his Stauffenberg has prompted, twice now, guessing games with friends and colleagues as to who would have been better in the role. Viggo Mortensen's name keeps popping up for the sole reason that he's never bigger than his parts (and his range extends farther than from A to A). But Cruise is all we see here — Ethan Hunt in an eye patch, pretending he's missing some fingers. (All he's really missing is the form-fitting mask.) Even when saying goodbye to his wife and kids for the final time, Stauffenberg never seems a man for whom there's anything at stake, except maybe missed dinner reservations. Valkyrie feels like another installment in the never-ending franchise — not just the action-movie one, but the Tom Cruise one. Like the operation itself, it's a good idea — just not well-executed.