December 25, 2008

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Valkyrie (PG-13)
Tom Cruise leads a plot to kill Hitler in Valkyrie, a movie whose ruling principle seems to be “more sturm und extra drang.”

Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) is disaffected with the Nazi party and Hitler’s leadership. (In this movie, at least, a significant chunk of the German army — portrayed predominantely by British actors — is anti-Nazi.) After surviving the loss of a hand and an eye in Africa, he returns to Germany ripe for the pickings of a resistance that has been planning and occasionally trying (unsuccessfully) to get rid of Hitler, sideline the Nazis and reach some sort of truce with the Allies. The based-on-a-true story actions of this movie take place mostly in 1944, even though, according to Wikipedia, the army-involved resistance movement existed as early as the late 1930s.

Actually, the Wikipedia entries (how did we find information on obscure points of history before Wikipedia?) about Operation Valkyrie (a government plan to restore order to Germany after an Allied invasion or devastating Allied bombing) and the from-inside-the-government plottings of anti-Nazis are a lot more interesting than the way this movie tells the story. Perhaps because the film’s creators thought that we, as an American audience, just wouldn’t sit through a World War II movie with no Allies and all Germans for more than two hours, the movie seems to have condensed a nearly decade-long story into just a few months. And, since we already know how the plot turns out (middle school history class should have spoiled the ending for you), the movie is reduced to turning things like the signing of a document into ridiculously tension-filled moments accompanied by a shrieking hysterical score. Devoid of the subtlety that made Letters from Iwo Jima such a fascinating rumination on war (and it focused on the Japanese for its entire two-plus hours), Valkyrie leaves you feeling nothing for its central characters.

The story is an interesting part of World War II history but the movie doesn’t put it in any kind of context. A good movie could be made about the dangers of compromising with a morally corrupt government and how and why people decide to resist. This isn’t that movie. Instead, we feel like we’re watching Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Terrence Stamp and, strangest of all, Eddie Izzard play Germans as part of some World War II reenactment game. The cast seems to take just a bit too much campy delight in all the heel-clicking and the Heil-ing to allow us to take the movie seriously. C

Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language. Directed by Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, Valkyrie is two hours long and is distributed by MGM. The movie opens wide on Thursday, Dec. 25.