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When focused, Cruise can shine

POSTED: January 1, 2009 5:00 a.m.
/United Artists

Tom Cruise, left, stars with Kenneth Branagh as a bitter soldier during World War II who devises a plot to kill Hitler.

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You never know what to expect from Tom Cruise these days. Cruise's Scientological couch jumping hovers over every project with which he's involved (why do you think the "Tropic Thunder" folks kept his role a secret?).

But Cruise's image is just one thing working against "Valkyrie." Most Germans didn't want this movie about a failed plot to kill Hitler to be filmed in their country. The film was originally planned as a 2008 award season heavyweight, then the studio began to doubt its prospects and pushed it to 2009. Then they did an about-face and plunked it down among the award contenders again. Hollywood has been abuzz for months about this being a big Cruise failure.

Overlooked in all this, though, is that "Valkyrie" was made by the same writer (Christopher McQuarrie) and director (Bryan Singer) who made "The Usual Suspects." Thankfully, the movie is what you'd expect from McQuarrie and Singer rather than Crazy Tom.

The story is simple yet rife with drama. A group of high-ranking German officers try to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup d'etat. The plan comes very close to success, but of course fails in the end.

The timing is crisp and the storytelling suspenseful. Keeping us on the edge of our seats is difficult when we all know Hitler survived this assassination attempt, yet "Valkyrie" does just that.

There is a sequence during which the characters believe Hitler is dead. The proof of how well the film works is that we find ourselves hoping, on some level wondering, if, the plot will work.

Col. Stauffenberg (Cruise) conceives the plan and plays its central role. This dedicated soldier has lost a hand and an eye to the war. He loathes what the fuhrer has done to his country, and his physical wounds serve as bitter motivation.

Here's another overlooked fact: Cruise is a distraction off screen, but more often than not, he is very good when the cameras roll. And this is a strong Cruise performance.

Cruise is buoyed by a stellar cast that includes Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard and Carice van Houten, whose portrayal of Stauffenberg's wife humanizes this somewhat hardened group of military men.

Like any film related to the Holocaust, the politics can be problematic. The problem here is that "Valkyrie" dodges the "Jewish question" completely. These men are not trying to stop Hitler's genocide, and this is not "Schindler's List." Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators are trying to save Germany - and themselves - from utter destruction and to rehabilitate the nation's image around the world.

We also have to remember that these events take place in 1944, a decade into Hitler's "Final Solution" and years into the war. By the time the assassination plot is devised, Germany looks like a certain loser and much of the damage has been done.

So these men are German patriots, but not necessarily humanitarians.

Despite this weakness in the film's politics, it ultimately does inspire. The message is clear and relevant to any moment in history, including our own.

"Valkyrie" releases within weeks of "The Reader," a film about post-WWII generations of Germans attempting to deal with the Holocaust. Clearly, the world continues to try to reconcile its own culpability and to heal its still open wounds.

"Valkyrie" won't accomplish either of those impossible goals, but it is an exciting telling of a little known chapter in World War II history.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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