Ed Driscoll

Surprisingly, Valkyrie Delivers The Goods

Nina and I caught up with Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie last night–for very much the reasons that this blogger suggested:

People are whining about the plot. People are whining about the lead actor. People are whining about how it’s kinda hard to make a suspenseful thriller when everyone already knows the ending.

Me? As far as I’m concerned, enough machine guns and dead Nazis will cover for nearly any movie-making sin. I can’t think of a single movie, from It’s A Wonderful Life to Mary Poppins, that wouldn’t be improved by a whole bunch of machine guns and dead Nazis.

Assuaged somewhat by the decent reviews the movie has been getting (after a notoriously rough shoot and apparently a ton of editing) I had very low expectations for the film, and other than one or two misfires (more on those in a bit), I thought the film itself worked pretty well, at least on the level of the sort of programmer that Hollywood used to routinely crank out in the ’60s and ’70s. (The Night of the Generals, Is Paris Burning?, The Eagle Has Landed, etc.) Of course, as Kyle Smith wrote last month:

In the ’70s, a movie like this would have been wall-to-wall with alcoholics like Richard Burton and Robert Shaw. Cruise is still both too pretty and too American to play the kind of warrior who, after losing seven fingers and an eye in a bombing raid, goes back to work without complaint.

Kyle is right on one level, but Cruise’s limited acting range and the tons of Xenu-stamped baggage that Cruise brings to any project are very much muted by two factors. Valkyrie has terrific production design, which makes the film feel big without ever seeming like the CGI is phony, and a great cast of supporting actors. It also helped that a big chunk of the cast were solid British and German character actors who had appeared in two far better movies about Nazi Germany–Conspiracy and Downfall.

Critics always seem to snark at movies in foreign locales where the actors speak English without some sort of regional accent, and yet some of the best films ever made didn’t encumber their actors with having to put on phony accents: Paths of Glory (Kirk Douglas with a French accent would have likely sounded akin to Inspector Clouseau) and Dr. Zhivago with its international cast both come immediately to mind, and there are countless other examples, particularly before Hollywood turned to Spielberg and Lucas to revive its sagging fortunes after the lights went out in the 1970s.

But given what was written about the film before its release, Valkyrie suffered an immediate setback in believability with its clunky first title card, which read something like this:

NORTH AFRICA, 1943: THE GERMAN NINTH PANZER CORPS

As opposed to what–the New Jersey Panzer Corps? And during a later scene, in which Cruise’s character gets the inspiration for his plot to assassinate Hitler while Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyrie” plays during an air raid, I half-expected a shot of Huey helicopters flying over Berlin, with Robert Duvall bellowing, “HITLER DON’T SURF!”

But once Cruise’s plot to kill Hitler begins to be implemented, the film begins to fall into place a first class thriller. And as Chuck DeVore writes at “Big Hollywood”, consider what the real-life Claus von Stauffenberg was up against:

Stauffenberg got himself appointed to a key position in Berlin. He sized up his target, meeting Hitler more than once. Stauffenberg then flew from Berlin to Prussia on the morning of July 20, 1944 with his briefcase bomb. He got into the heavily guarded command post and excused himself to arm the bomb. He armed the bomb with one mangled hand on which he had a thumb and two fingers, coordinating his progress through his one eye. He was interrupted by a guard telling him to hurry as the briefing with Hitler was about to begin. He placed the briefcase bomb under the briefing table and was called out of the room by a “phone call.” He waited in a nearby shelter to observe the blast, then walked away with his aide-de-camp. Stauffenberg then bluffed his way out of a command post crawling with heavily armed men just after a mysterious explosion.

And that sequence and its denouement is a textbook example of Hitchcockian technqiue, as Hitchcock himself explained four decades ago to Francois Truffaut:

There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Since Valkyrie is a film with two huge bummers at the end, as surely is known by virtually everyone in the audience–the conspirators are shot and Hitler lives–suspense is what makes it tick. After a false start or two, and even with its somewhat miscast lead, it certainly delivers on that account.