As with many historical events, we know how the story ends yet cannot help thinking that maybe this time around things will turn out differently. Marie-Antoinette was never guillotined, the Titanic did not hit the iceberg, Pearl Harbor never happened. Although we know that all the attempts to assassinate Hitler failed, including the one on June 1944, led by Von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators, we still hope that the bomb will kill the monster and that the victims of his last year at the head of the Reich will be spared.
With “Valkyrie,” our hearts are definitely with the assassins, as they are with anyone trying to rid the world of the more abominable historical figures (we cheer on as Prince Yossupof kills the mad monk, Rasputin). But the film, directed by Bryan Singer of “X-Men” and “Usual Suspects” fame, falls so short that the grand gesture and the courage of the co-conspirators against Hitler leave us quite cold.
Valkyrie is the name given to the handmaidens to the gods in their Valhalla, in the somber Norse and Teutonic mythology. Curiously, that mythology has never stopped haunting the German psyche. (To put things in perspective, imagine the British mind being tortured by memories of King Arthur and his knights and wishing to relive the purity and noble purpose of that time). Wagner uses the myth in his opera ‘Valkyrie,’ part of the Ring cycle.
The opening has been much used by Hollywood, the most famous instance being the black helicopters flying in formation in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Here, Valkyrie is the code name to an operation calling in reserve forces in the event of a coup. The film is bloated, badly constructed, the music is predictably martial.
We are spared no cliché. (At one point, Hitler thoughtfully states that without Wagner there would have been no national socialism). Tom Cruise, a competent but lightweight actor, is simply not right for the part. He has neither the charisma nor the aristocratic mien of von Stauffenberg and one cannot imagine why experienced politicians and top military brass would risk their lives joining him in the conspiracy. Hitler, who escaped the bomb, as we know, remains the most hated man in history so he must have had some substance, even if totally evil.
Here, he is barely sketched. Under Singer’s direction, the plethora of top actors (Frank Langella, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard, etc.) never develop the muscles that would allow them to pull up the heavy, inert machinery that is this film.