Because nothing says "Happy birthday, baby Jesus" like Nazis plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler, United Artists has gift-wrapped Valkyrie and placed it beneath your cinematic Christmas tree.
It wasn't always on the studio's holiday wish list, though. Valkyrie has had more potential dates than a sorority girl during post-production, and UA nabbed headlines as it searched -- endlessly -- for the ideal opening weekend. Such drastic schedule shifts usually suggest a film with serious issues, but fortunately that's not the case with Valkyrie. Director Bryan Singer has made a riveting military drama, a popcorn thriller masquerading as a political potboiler. But he also saddled his studio with a tough film to market. Article continues below
Start with the face of Singer's picture, which is partially obstructed. Tom Cruise plays a high-ranking officer in Hitler's regime and the driving force behind a factual plot to kill the Führer, sporting an eye patch thanks to injuries his character sustains in an early battle. Then there's the fact that, as any junior high student will be able to tell you, the intricate plot at the center of Valkyrie is destined to fail. Singer can't squeeze tension from a "Will they succeed?" scenario. So he wisely opts for a "How do things go so terribly wrong?" one instead.
Cruise gives perhaps his lowest-key performance ever as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a proud German military officer whose patriotism puts him at odds with Hitler's inhumane practices. After being physically (and emotionally) wounded on an African battlefield, Stauffenberg receives a promotion to Hitler's inner circle -- and is immediately approached by a band of dissenters planning a coup to dethrone the leader of the Nazi party.
Their mission is Operation Valkyrie, an order that would mobilize Hitler's reserve forces if Allied troops infiltrate Germany. General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) and Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) view Valkyrie as a means for Germany to both protect Europe and save face with the Allies. But a fed-up Stauffenberg tacks on an amendment to the order. Before Valkyrie can begin, Hitler's life must be ended.
Valkyrie does start slow. Singer takes his time to properly lay a foundation, introduce key characters, and establish potential roadblocks. Tom Wilkinson is particularly convincing as a paranoid Nazi superior who could assist Stauffenberg but would never speak out against the Führer.
The film takes flight, however, once Stauffenberg greenlights the plan -- even though all of the elements for success might not be in place. Singer mounts an impressive campaign, recreating Hitler’s Berlin (and outlying areas) as he tears it down from within. He lifts a few of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite tricks to drum up tensions, and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander connect Valkyrie to our current conflict in the Middle East as they establish the frustrations felt by German loyalists carrying out the orders of a delusional leader.
That might be reading too deep into the material. But it proves there are layers to Valkyrie beyond the surface thrills.