Fail Safe
by Justin Stewart

Dir. Bryan Singer, U.S., United Artists

Tom Cruise was supposedly drawn to the role of German Resistance hero Claus von Stauffenberg when he noticed how much he looks like the Nazi. (A similar motivation brought Ed Harris to Pollock, not to mention Tina Fey to Sarah Palin.) A side-by-side comparison confirms the likeness. It’s picayune, but Cruise, director Bryan Singer, and writer Christopher McQuarrie seem to have given us Valkyrie for little other reason than to make something that bears superficial resemblance to the last of fifteen in-house plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler. So they’ve followed the timeline, correctly parted the actors’ hair, eBayed Nazi insignia, made adequate overtures to historical accuracy, and in all matters gone through the motions of recreation. The result is fine, ordinary, and only feels so unnecessary because of the “crazy” Tom Cruise internet hype with which it unwittingly came bundled. Leaked images of Cruise as an eye-patched Nazi had some sensing a train wreck, or at least something particularly noteworthy, generating a nebulous kind of interest too outsized for the resultant straight-ahead thriller.

It’s silly to expect “necessariness” from any movie, and there’s no crime in handsomely assembling a moving diorama of a fascinating historical event. Effective “thrillers with import” that avoid proselytizing might be only a master’s game; successes from Army of Shadows to Munich show how skillfully it can be done. Singer’s not there yet, obviously; his film is closer to Enemy at the Gates or Hart’s War. His treatment of the 20 July Plot of 1944 is as slick and vapid as The Usual Suspects. It’s Apt Pupil meets X-Men and probably exactly what he was hired to make.

Valkyrie’s simplification process begins immediately: It opens with Stauffenberg writing in a diary of his beef with Hitler’s genocidal villainy. While his true motivations are a matter of some historical debate, casting Stauffenberg as a come-lately hero for humanity, with little or no lust for power, paints the chessboard in unsmudged black and white. Valkyrie also dispenses with the language issue right away; Cruise’s awkward take on German inflection quickly turns to flat American English. (Almost everyone else speaks in instant prestige-adding British accents.) Next, we’re shown an attack at the North African post which cost Stauffenberg his left eye, right hand, and some left hand fingers. The resultant stub and eye patch seem to affect Cruise’s performance in a surprising way. Whereas a Russell Crowe might’ve used them as crutches enabling excessive hamminess, Cruise plays it extra subtly, as far from the Jack Sparrow end of the spectrum as possible. The disappearing act is interesting, and smartly avoids romanticizing Stauffenberg, but the chief impression it leaves is the feeling that there’s a more engaging cinematic portrayal of the man waiting to be made.

Valkyrie is only ever as exciting as the events it’s recreating, so it’s unsurprising that the actual bombing, when it finally arrives, is great cinema. It’s one of the few scenes during which it’s possible to forget that the film’s conclusion is already known. Cruise is excellent here, his panic visible but expertly disguised. The bombing’s success or failure rests on tiny details like the placement of the briefcase that houses the explosives, or the fact that the meeting was switched from a bunker at “The Wolf’s Lair” (in which a bomb would almost definitely kill everyone inside) to an open-aired bungalow. The meticulousness and thick dramatic irony make it Hitchcock-tense, as suspenseful as the key bomb sequence in Sabotage. Singer withholds “revealing” that the plot failed, but it’s not an insult to the audience’s knowledge—it’s just a way to mirror the mindset of Stauffenberg, who for many hours enacted the takeover Operation Valkyrie on the assumption that the blast had eliminated the target.

The movie’s least essential subplot is an unmoving look at Stauffenberg’s family life, consisting almost entirely of close-ups of his wife’s emotive face. She’s played by the wide-eyed Carice van Houten from Black Book, Paul Verhoven’s World War II movie that also supplied three other Valkyrie actors and undoubtedly some props. The two brunettes have three lovely blond children that Cruise feigns affection for. If anything, it’s to Stauffenberg’s credit that his cries of “Long live sacred Germany!” ring so much truer than his obligatory emotional handouts to his family, a comparatively minor concern in the face of what he’s up against. Awkward, too, are any shots with Hitler front and center. David Bamber plays him as a barely articulate stooped troll with bulging eyes and a reckless sense of imminent doom. While no one was asking for a “sexed up” Führer, the cartoon we’re given seems an oddly distracting choice. There’s even something askew about the casting of satellite characters like Kenneth Branagh’s von Tresckow and Tom Wilkinson’s General Fromm. Their clothes, their roles, don’t quite fit; they don’t seem sure why they’ve been asked to resurrect these Nazis.

The nonhistorical conflict in Valkyrie is the undercurrent friction between the choice of director and the seeming prestige of the project. It misses the greatness or eccentricity that a higher caliber director would’ve brought, but it at least offers the kind of satisfying-enough excitement you get in Singer’s other movies. Like the assassination plot, it’s an ambiguous almost-success. Stauffenberg is a complicated figure—not someone to idealize—and he’s not a “hero for our times” like Harvey Milk. Valkyrie is “timeless” in the inconsequential, isolated sense.