There's a peculiar dichotomy about Valkyrie. It's undeniably entertaining, slickly made, has good to excellent performances, and yet it elicits barely a reaction the entire way through its two or so hours. Part of this may be from the dramatic inertia of knowing going in how it will all end (does anybody not know that Hitler wasn't assassinated?). But I think the more telling problem with this film is its point of view and how it treats its characters. Everyone in this film, none more so than its putative hero, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), is a cipher. There's virtually no background given, no real character motivations are ever explicated, and the result is a film where a lot happens, but none of it matters very much. This film about the most relatively successful of many plots to assassinate the Fuhrer works sporadically as a procedural, but if you're looking for anything that explains its characters and gives any specific or general insight into matters large and small, you'd better keep looking.
I had the pleasure, if you can call it that, of reviewing one excellent and one fair documentary on the real Claus von Stauffenberg, both of which were released around the time Valkyrie hit theater screens. The real von Stauffenberg came from a noble background, one immersed in Catholicism, chivalry and a certain moral strictness that sooner rather than later put him at odds with the growing horrors of Nazism. That wealth of background information is glossed over (in fact, it's not really dealt with at all) and instead is hinted at in a sort of prelude where we see von Stauffenberg writing in a personal diary about his dissatisfaction with the war's progress and the general moral decrepitude of the Nazi elite.
After von Stauffenberg is horribly maimed in a battle (he lost one hand, two fingers off the other one, and his left eye), he is returned to the Fatherland where, after his recovery, he becomes, ironically, one of Hitler's inner circle at almost the same time his complaints about the Fuhrer have introduced him to a cadre of coup d'etat planners. Valkyrie lines this all up like a neat little row of dominoes, and it's certainly brisk and at least passably interesting, but there's no emotional gravitas. There's no background on the German aristocracy, a class which made up a lot of the plotters. There's no familial connection to von Stauffenberg in the conspiracy as presented in the film (his Uncle actually was the one who recruited the real Colonel into the plan).
What this film never even attempts to get at is the intellectual zeitgeist of von Stauffenberg, both within the context of his upbringing and later how it developed in him as an adult. This was a man with a strong poetic and almost mythic appreciation for his native land, but one that was diametrically opposed to the superman delusions of Nietzsche and Wagner. Perhaps tempered by his profound Catholic faith, von Stauffenberg was anchored in a "do unto others" ethic that he was convinced was not only his personal salvation, but that of his country as well, especially after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. There's not one whit about any of this in Valkyrie, and certainly a scenarist of Christopher McQuarrie's skill could have (and indeed should have) found a way to incorporate it seamlessly into a discussion or two.
For a film which is ostensibly about a thrilling plot to kill an abominable man who virtually personifies Evil with a capital E, there is a most peculiar serenity and lack of vigor to a lot of Valkyrie. Bryan Singer is always a capable, and sometimes a very skillful, director, and his flowing mise en scene here is as impressive as anything he's done. The camera moves flawlessly through one segment after another, sometimes in surprising ways. In an early scene when von Stauffenberg is being coaxed into the conspiracy by General Olbricht (Bill Nighy), we first see a close-up of a statue of Jesus on the cross, and discern we're in a church. At the end of the scene, the camera tracks back to reveal we're actually in the bombed out ruins of a church, and it is at once a brilliant glyph on the course of the war for the Germans at that point, but also, more subtly, a telling little symbol of von Stauffenberg's own fractured faith.
There are a host of good performances in Valkyrie, which help to keep entropy from spreading too quickly. Chief among these are Nighy, as a conflicted General whose indecision costs the conspiracy valuable time, Terence Stamp as the retired general around whom many of the conspirators gather, and in a kind of fun against type role, Eddie Izzard as a duplicitous communications expert who works at the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's Prussian bunker where the conspirators hope to complete their deadly mission. (It should be noted that Izzard's character's introduction is horribly botched in this film--there seems to be some backstory there that was left on the cutting room floor, and the relationship between him and von Stauffenberg is never fully explained). Kenneth Branagh, looking kind of old and chunky for the first time in his long screen career, is also excellent as one of the main conspirators. Cruise is his typical stalwart self; being a cipher suits his performance style to a tee.
But ultimately a "historical recreation" film like Valkyrie rises and falls on what it reveals about its characters. It can go into complete fiction like, say, JFK, and still come out with a visceral, if pointedly one sided, argument (some would say screed in terms of the Stone film). Or it can stick largely to facts and still provide enough nuanced background in the characters to give a new perspective, as in Good Night and Good Luck, or even Quiz Show. But when the film resolutely refuses to give us any background at all, and simply plops a bunch of characters down to go through the motions, it can't then expect the audience to get up in arms (so to speak) about anything that happens, for good or ill.
In the pop music world, you'll hear hitmakers always talking about "the hook," that riff or repeated element in a song that becomes the anchor around which your memory revolves, hopefully making the tune never leave your brow. About the only hook that Valkyrie had going for it was the unintended hilarity of the German government refusing (at least at first) to give the film access to any locations due to Tom Cruise's famous (some would say infamous at this point) involvement with Scientology, which the Germans consider a totalitarian regime (maybe Hitler was Xenu reincarnated). Aside from the outright comedy of that situation, it actually points up the major problem with Valkyrie--if the film itself doesn't give you anything to sink your teeth into, you're apt to go off on a tangent like its star's putative religion in order to keep your interest engaged. That doesn't bode well for a film like Valkyrie that purports to want to thrill you.