It’s a well that Hollywood loves to mine: Nazi Germany during World War II. If anything screams pure evil, it’s Hitler and his army trying to take over Europe and the world. And frankly, it seems like there are still stories to tell from that time, including about the multitude of assassination attempts made on Hitler.
Such is Valkyrie, a story about one of those attempts. And while you’d think that between that powerful story and its robust cast, that the movie would be truly amazing. That was certainly my wish heading into watching it, but I, like a lot of others I’ve seen online, was disappointed. Though I’m not sure where to lay the blame.
The film is a historically accurate telling of a group of conspirators within the German military during World War II who plotted to kill Hitler and seize power by implementing Operation Valkyrie, which was designed to lock down the government quarter in Berlin to maintain the central government in spite of the loss of its leader.
As anyone who has studied any World War II history can tell you, there were many attempts on Hitler’s life during his time as leader of Germany, and none, obviously, was successful. Yet this attempt, according to the filmmakers, was intriguing because the military conspirators explicitly knew what their punishment would be if they failed, and yet, feeling the importance of the need to rid Germany and the world of Hitler, they continued with their plan anyway.
So with the powerful drama of a plot against Hitler, with only two possible outcomes (Hitler’s death or the death of the conspirators), there seems to be a strong, compelling story. And the filmmakers added a strong cast: Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, and Terence Stamp among others. The combination should be powerful. It should be a good, tense drama. But it isn’t.
The problem is that I’m not sure where it falls flat. The writing itself seems to go through each event point by point, as if reciting them from a history book. And yet, that seems like should be compelling enough on its own. In fact, there is no urgency or feeling of tension in the writing, and this may be what ends up being translated to film by the actors. But while Hitler appears in the film on a couple of occasions, he never is characterized in such a way to appear worthy of our condemnation, and the conspirators aren’t ever cast in the light of being heroes. It’s as if the writers decided that the viewers’ own existing feelings about Hitler and those who would wish to kill him would be strong enough to carry the emotional weight of the film. So without the strong characterizations in the film, we have no reason to root for or hate anyone in the film.
The weak characterization carries into the acting: Tom Cruise’s portrayal of the main character, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was not flat, but it wasn’t powerful enough to convey any real tension or fear on his part. Kenneth Branagh appears early, connecting Stauffenberg to the conspirators, and then disappears for the entire movie, until we see him kill himself after the plot fails. Bill Nighy’s character comes off as weak and indecisive. And even Hitler’s character is mostly forgettable.
The saving graces for the movie are the fact that while it’s just over two hours long, it moves along, doesn’t get caught in unnecessary subplots, and that the shots and scene setups do a good job to not get in the way of the story. But again, for a drama that should have been so tense, it was, frankly, boring.
Three out of Five Stars.