As weird as it may
sound, the Nazis have become pantomime villains in recent years. This is not down to a lack of respect - after all, the way to rob an organisation of its power is to remove its credibility and Lord knows there's enough holocaust films to remind us of the Horrors Of What Really Happened. But all those B-movies and cheesy adventure serials do tend to make it more difficult to swallow a dramatic take on the Third Reich without raising a giggle. Even the recent Downfall, an intensely powerful Hitler biopic, has been reduced to a punchline as part of an online viral
Bryan Singer's Valkyrie is stymied by a similar problem. Buzz on the movie has been disastrous, including on-set crew fatalities, controversy and reports of audiences bursting into laughter during serious scenes. Despite all this, and the unavoidable media meltdown that goes in hand with any film starring Tom Cruise, Valkyrie is an effective drama that manages to tell a largely untold World War II story and make it seem vital and thrilling, for the most part at least.
Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a disillusioned and righteous Nazi officer (stay with me) who hatches a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and reclaim Germany for the people. Set in 1944, the war is slowly tipping in the Allies favour, but the dissenting ranks in the Third Reich can follow orders blindly no longer and form a mutinous plot to off the Fuhrer by drafting up Operation Valkyrie - a military coup that see the reserve army given the powers to dismantle the Nazi regime.
History tells us that Operation Valkyrie was an epic fail, so Singer is faced with the challenge of ignoring the 'if' and concentrating on the 'why'. Nonetheless, the movie's first half, building up to the assassination plot, bubbles with tension as Cruise and co convince Hitler to effectively sign his own death warrant. The movie's centrepiece - a round-table strategic meeting, complete with suitcase bomb ticking beneath the Fuhrer's feet - is a real pulse-quickener. But when Stauffenberg's plot goes up in smoke, so does Singer's.
The fallout of the explosion sees the pace drop to a splutter. The first half's shady subterfuge gives way to endless scenes of hurried pacing and stressed phone calls, lack of communication playing just as big a part in Operation Valkyrie than guns and mortar. One telephone exchange, reminiscent of the Budweiser ads, sees a string of Stauffenberg's conspirators relay a phone conversation over and over down the line ("Whassup, B? The Fuhrer's not dead? True, true") until you start to think Singer is struggling to fill in the third act plot holes that history left open.
Matters are not helped by a faint air of ridiculousness throughout. Save for an opening voiceover in which Cruise speaks German, all Valkyrie's players speak in their native accents throughout. On paper, not a problem - Germans do nicht speak with ein eefil accent in real life after all - but on screen, it's a mess. There's a mixture of nationalities - Brits mixing with Yanks and Germans - but Cruise's American is the righteous hero while all the Limey Nazis are bumbling, stammering idiots (Bill Nighy in particular still acts like he's in a Richard Curtis movie). It's a shame, but the lackadaisical use of the English language colours everything.
Then, there's the unavoidable feel of parody - one officer takes a swim in a pool daubed with a giant swastika, while surrealist comedian Eddie Izzard stomps around in jack boots and jodhpurs. As solid as Cruise's performance is, he's simply not believable as a one-eyed, crippled Nazi - his 'Heil Hitler' salute, complete with one fingerless hand, will likely be met with stifled laughter instead of hushed awe. Petty grievances, maybe, but details that make Valkyrie hard to take seriously.
It's a shame, because when Singer concentrates on telling a straight-up story rather than convincing us of Tom Cruise's Nazi heritage, Valkyrie works. It's a fairly lean two hours with little in the way of needless distraction (Stauffenberg's wife, played by Black Book's Carice van Houten, barely gets a speaking part) and Singer's directorial style is smooth and studied. Valkyrie isn't a classic war movie by any means, but is it the total laughing stock many feared? Nein. Sorry, I mean 'no'.