It's July 20, 1944, and Adolf Hitler has been assassinated — the victim of a bomb blast organized and executed by a cabal of high-ranking German army officers seeking to wrest control of the country from the Third Reich and, with luck, bring an end to World War II. Duped into thinking that the coup is actually the work of rogue members of Hitler's inner circle, the reserve army has taken to the streets of Berlin, arresting SS officers and other Nazi apparatchiks, while the rest of Axis Europe, taking its cue from Berlin, follows suit. By nightfall, Hitler's manifest destiny will be a thing of the past.
Well, that was the idea, anyway. If only Hitler hadn't moved that morning's strategy meeting at the Wolfsschanze from his airtight bunker to a breezy conference hut, and if only the briefcase planted by one Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — a maimed hero of the war's North African theater — hadn't bumped against the foot of Colonel Heinz Brandt, who proceeded to move it behind a large wooden table leg, shielding the Führer from the worst of a blast that killed four others. Even then, the ingenious plot might have come off had Stauffenberg's coconspirator, General Friedrich Olbricht, not had second thoughts about mobilizing the reserve troops, or if only someone had thought to cut off phone service to the office of Joseph Goebbels, so that, on the verge of being arrested himself, the propaganda minister wouldn't have been able to verify the voice of his still-living-and-breathing master at the other end of the line. If only.
It sounds like the blueprint for a classically constructed Hollywood espionage picture — and it is, albeit one whose most improbable twists issue straight from the historical record. Yet, curiously, it's taken Hollywood more than six decades to devote a major movie to the July 20 plot (a TV version, The Plot to Kill Hitler, appeared in 1990), one whose road to the screen would prove nearly as rocky as the failed coup itself. Directed by Bryan Singer and starring Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg, the $75 million Valkyrie (aka “Tom Cruise's Nazi movie”) has made seemingly inexhaustible fodder for the industry trade papers and the tabloid rumor mill, where it has been subjected to a level of scrutiny usually reserved for political candidates and terror suspects.
Adding to the media feeding frenzy that accompanies each new film featuring the world's biggest movie star, Valkyrie is the second production of the newly resuscitated United Artists studio, which Cruise and his longtime producing partner, Paula Wagner, assumed control of in 2006, and whose first release, the Robert Redford–directed Lions for Lambs (featuring Cruise in a secondary role), was a critical and box-office disappointment. Further complicating matters, when Valkyrie began shooting in the summer of 2007, Cruise was still just two years on from the series of infamous media appearances that turned him into the biggest star of a whole other medium: YouTube.
Of the many teapot tempests that would attend the Valkyrie production, one of the first erupted when the German government denied the filmmakers permission (eventually granted) to shoot scenes in the Bendlerblock courtyard where Stauffenberg, Olbricht, and other July 20 participants were executed by firing squad. Then there was the report (later disproved) by Slate's Kim Masters insinuating that UA had doctored a publicity photograph of the real Stauffenberg to make him more closely resemble his chiseled celluloid avatar. Twice the movie's release was delayed (from June to October to February, only to then be pushed up to December), in part because of a prologue sequence that still had to be shot. Perhaps most amusing of all, “unauthorized” Cruise biographer Andrew Morton went so far as to suggest that Valkyrie was but an instrument of the Church of Scientology, designed to shore up the organization's position in Europe, no matter that (by Morton's own subsequent admission) the project originated with Singer and his Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie (neither of whom is a Scientologist).
It's little wonder, then, that Cruise and Singer seem downright giddy with relief when we sit down together on the eve of Valkyrie's New York premiere. Although they're at the end of a two-day international press junket and about to embark on several more days of nonstop TV appearances, they're happy to finally be talking in their own terms about the movie they made, instead of reading about it in the headlines.
At first glance, they do make something of an odd couple — Singer, who at 43 still looks very much the slouching USC film student in T-shirt and unfashionably faded, torn jeans, and Tom Terrific, who bounds into the conference room at Manhattan's Regency Hotel on a tide of boyish energy, with his rugged yet casual designer threads, impeccably tousled hair, and that irradiant smile. But it's just as soon evident that the star and his director share a jovial affinity for one another, so much so that they can (and often do) finish each other's sentences.
That rapport took hold early on in the Valkyrie development process, when Cruise and Singer would meet for up to 12 hours at a time, to discuss the movie at hand, of course, but just as often to talk about and even watch old movies they both love — to, as Cruise puts it, “film-geek out.” For Singer, whose best-known films (including The Usual Suspects and X-Men) have been ensemble pictures cast with a mix of veteran character actors and rising young talent, those marathon rap sessions also helped to take the edge off his apprehension about working with his first billion-dollar movie star.
“From the start, it was very comfortable,” Singer says. “Here was a person giving me complete trust and respect as an actor, and I know that he's just worked with Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg and Michael Mann — the list goes on. That immediately put me at ease. And ultimately, Tom brings out the best in you.”
“And I think that's the way you directed me, right from the beginning, with your ideas on the character and the exploration of the character, your generosity as a filmmaker,” Cruise interjects. “When we're making a movie, I'm an actor. I love acting and I want to be directed. I don't want to direct myself. And Bryan has an uncanny thing — he knows when it's right. He knows when things are there.”
By way of example, Cruise singles out one tense scene in which Stauffenberg, having just returned to Berlin after detonating the bomb, phones Olbricht only to learn of the kinks that have already developed in their can't-miss plan. “So here we were, working on this scene,” Cruise says. “We tried it a bunch of different ways, and this one time Bryan came in and said, 'Now, after that line, I want you to hold the phone down. Just say the line and then hold the phone down.' And I knew exactly that that behavior was perfect. That's the kind of thing — together, you know we're going to figure it out. It might seem like a little thing, but that moment — that's Stauffenberg. That's someone who's right there at the edge about to lose control and realizes … he just puts that phone down to gather himself under such tremendous stress. The character was built around these very specific moments.”
The result is a solid performance in exactly the type of role that has long been Cruise's strong suit: a man of means and determination who, even when thwarted by circumstance (or forced, as in Rain Man, Magnolia, and Jerry Maguire, to confront his own shallowness), reliably emerges better, stronger, and even more focused than he was before. It's the archetypical hero's journey as canonized by Joseph Campbell, and Cruise was born to play it, even if it's debatable whether he was born to play a German officer.
Indeed, Stauffenberg is only Cruise's third character of foreign extraction, and the previous two (the French bloodsucker Lestat in Interview with the Vampire and the Irish farmer Joseph Donnelly in Far and Away) were émigrés to the New World. And it's on this count that some critics, even before seeing Valkyrie, had already sharpened their knives. That Cruise doesn't attempt a German accent as Stauffenberg has been blogger catnip for more than a year now, although it's only really news if you've never seen Frank Borzage's very fine rise-of-the-Nazis melodrama The Mortal Storm (starring the Pennsylvania-accented Jimmy Stewart as an Austrian farmer), Michael Curtiz' Passage to Marseille (with Humphrey Bogart speaking in his regular rasp as a French journalist opposed to the Vichy regime) or, for that matter, Out of Africa (which offered up Robert Redford as the British Denys Finch Hatton).
In other words, Hollywood actors have been passing as foreigners sans proper accent virtually since the start of talking pictures — especially those stars like Stewart, Bogart, Redford, and Cruise whose very appeal is linked to a certain innate, inimitable American-ness. These aren't character actors who chameleonically disappear under the skin of each new role. (You want that, you call Johnny Depp, or Laurence Olivier.) Rather, these are stars for whom some part of their iconic personae always remains visible on the surface, and in their best roles only intensifies (rather than weakens) the power of the performance. As former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock wisely noted upon the casting of Cruise to play Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, “It's not only Ron who goes through this wrenching story, it is Tom Cruise — our perception of Tom Cruise.”
Valkyrie was shot, whenever possible, on the locations where the events depicted actually occurred, with historian Peter Hoffmann on hand as an adviser. But for all the film's scrupulous attention to detail, Cruise and Singer insist that they intended Valkyrie first and foremost as a thriller, and they're right to do so. Anyone coming to the film expecting a probing inquiry into the conflicting ethics and philosophies of Hitler's Germany, or even an irreverent romp on the order of Paul Verhoeven's Dutch resistance tale, Blackbook (from which Valkyrie borrows several actors), will perhaps be disappointed by this modestly scaled, unironic (and, above all, unpretentious), wartime thriller about good Germans and bad Nazis. By the same token, those who fondly remember watching just such movies on TV while sitting upon their father's knee are likely to be delighted. Think of it as an object lesson in Alfred Hitchcock's famous definition of movie suspense as showing the audience a ticking time bomb under a table. Only Valkyrie is that rare ticking-bomb movie that gets more suspenseful after things blow up.
“We could have made this a three-hour movie,” Cruise says. “This could have been an entire Stauffenberg biopic. It could have been an Olbricht biopic. We worked seven days a week on this thing. From the moment we started, rarely was there a day that went by …”
“That we didn't see each other,” Singer says.
“Or talk on the phone or go location scouting,” Cruise continues. “And Bryan would take all this information, all of these pieces, and he kept always going back to the structure of the story — the film that he wanted to make. This is, at its core, a suspense thriller.”
Yet, even as Singer kept things focused on the essentials, both director and star felt the burden of historical responsibility that came with telling a rarely told story from a war that (if this fall movie season alone is any indication) continues to cast a long shadow across the landscape of popular culture.
“You had to swear to God to one man,” says Cruise with audible disgust about the oath — heard over the opening titles of the film — that even non-Nazi German soldiers were obliged to pledge to Hitler. “You couldn't think for yourself. It was not about country.”
“That was something that Stauffenberg found intolerable, and so did the other conspirators,” Singer adds. “And they felt that very early on. [German General Ludwig] Beck resigned in '38 in protest, and a lot of these guys would go to Beck or complain to [Field Marshals Erwin] Rommel or [Erich von] Manstein. A lot of them hated Hitler, but they were part of a system and they were constantly trying to find a way out of it, or a way to confront Hitler or bring him down. And with the years and with Hitler's security and the war, it grew more and more difficult. It was by virtue of Stauffenberg's injuries — it has almost allegorical proportions — that he was delivered to this place where he had the access and could do this thing that was already on his mind to do.”
“The thing that I felt confident about was Bryan as a filmmaker, and the script,” Cruise says.
“And the fact that the guy's trying to kill Hitler!” Singer says. “Who, as a kid, doesn't … “
“Who doesn't want to kill Hitler?” Cruise says, flashing that blinding smile. “I was, like, 'I want to kill Hitler!'”
So, what can I tell you about Tom Cruise that you don't already know? Probably nothing, unless you've been living in a media-free hyperbaric chamber for the past 25 years (and if you have, far be it from me to disturb your peace). For although the 46-year-old Cruise (né Thomas Cruise Mapother IV) first appeared on movie screens in 1981, with a bit part opposite future tabloid sparring partner Brooke Shields in the teen romance Endless Love and a more substantial supporting role as a military cadet in Taps, it was exactly a quarter-century ago that he came into his own as a matinee idol with four consecutive 1983 releases. That was the year Cruise secured his membership in the nascent “brat pack” as the greaser Steve Randle in Francis Coppola's impressionistic rendering of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders before moving on to top billing as a horny SoCal teen headed for Tijuana in Losin' It, a genteel 1960s roustabout farce directed by future L.A. Confidential Oscar winner Curtis Hanson. Next, Cruise slid across the hardwood floor of a suburban Chicago living room and shot to the top of the box-office charts in Risky Business. By year's end, he had delivered a disarmingly earnest dramatic turn as a blue-collar Pennsylvania high school footballer angling for a college scholarship in the tough-minded sports drama All the Right Moves.
Collectively, it was enough to put Cruise on the radar of ascending überproducers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who were then looking for a lead for their Top Gun — the role, passed on by many a bigger name of the day (including Mickey Rourke, Matthew Modine, and, yes, Scott Baio), that would cement Cruise's status as the pristine embodiment of sky's-the-limit, Reagan-era masculine ethos. As has been said of many of film history's greatest movie stars — and make no mistake that Cruise is one of them, which is different from (but by no means exclusive of) being a great actor — women wanted to be with him, while men wanted to be him. Just as the sight of a bare-chested Clark Gable in It Happened One Night had, a half-century earlier, caused a financial crisis in the undershirt industry, so Cruise's turn as fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell did wonders for the sales of Ray-Bans and leather bomber jackets— to say nothing of the U.S. Navy, which reportedly saw its biggest uptick in new recruits since World War II.
The variables are not that different today. Sure, Cruise is older now, but if he so much as changes his hairstyle, the effect on the nation's barbershops is analogous to the butterfly that flaps its wings in China and causes a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. The interest and innuendo surrounding the arrival of his first biological child, Suri (born to Cruise's third wife, Katie Holmes, in 2006), may be unrivaled by any such birth since that of a certain carpenter's son in a Bethlehem manger. So to talk about Cruise is really to talk about the nature of celebrity — the status it grants the bearer, the influence it exerts on the beholder, and the ways in which celebrities, wrapped in their carefully spun cocoons of prosperity and perfection, become vessels for our own fantasies, ambitions and desires.
Reviewing Cruise's performance in 2006's Mission: Impossible III (in which, among other things, the daredevil star performed his own jump across a 15-foot gap in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge), I wrote, only semifacetiously, “What I'm saying is that Cruise really is superior to us mere mortals, that he's faster and stronger and more focused — and, well, just better — than you or I could ever hope to be, and that this is the very thing that draws us to him, and probably what repels us too.” And that remains, I think, a reasonable encapsulation of Cruise's enduring public fascination. Some people love Tom Cruise. Some hate him. Others claim not to pay attention — yet sometimes they are the ones who seem to know the most about him. Simply put, we can't seem to get enough of Tom Cruise, and yet we search for cracks in the gleaming facade, reminders that he, too, is only human.
In the post-couch–jumping era, this has arguably gotten easier. It has been suggested that the star isn't quite as potent at the box office as he once was, delivering a third Mission: Impossible that, while a hit by almost any measure, failed to exceed the gross of the second. Meanwhile, he has been criticized for being the outspoken advocate of a religion — Scientology — that some say has changed their lives, that some mock for sport, and that some say isn't really a religion at all. Never mind that Cruise is hardly the first Hollywood star to champion nonmainstream beliefs or to engage in the occasional act of eccentric public behavior. And never mind that, as Bill Maher ably demonstrated in the otherwise specious documentary Religulous, there isn't a major religion on the planet that can claim to have its underlying tenets verified by scientific fact. (That's where a little thing called faith enters in.) The point, of course, is that we are talking about any of this in the first place, which is a far more compelling barometer of Cruise's staying power than any box-office chart.
Cruise, for his part, is accustomed to the scrutiny by now. “I've had this on movies, this attention,” he says. “It's accelerated today, because of the nature of communication, how things get twisted and spun and thrown out there. And also Bryan,” he says, momentarily deflecting the focus back to his director. “He's Bryan Singer. He's very famous.”
“What he means to say,” Singer says, “is that my apartment was near to the hotel where Tom was staying, so occasionally, when he was taking one of his very brief rests, I'd get some of his spillover paparazzi.”
“I don't know what to do about it,” Cruise says. “When you're making the film, you can't worry about that. You've just got to always go back and make the movie.”
Which brings us back to Valkyrie and, in particular, its ending — the one that some have suggested makes the movie a self-defeating enterprise, and that, for all but the most historically oblivious, could only be made more apparent if the film had been titled The Assassination of Claus von Stauffenberg by the Coward Friedrich Fromm.
“I now must defend it,” says Singer, who's heard this argument before. “Stauffenberg, at the very end, may not have known, personally, whether Hitler was dead or alive, really, because of Nazi spin propaganda. But the goal, as [Major General Henning von] Tresckow said in real life and says in the movie, was to show the world that not all Germans were like Hitler.”
“And also to inspire others to stand up against tyranny,” Cruise says. “It's timeless.”
So, even when the guy fails to complete his impossible mission, he still manages to come out on top. What, really, could be more Tom Cruise than that?