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Savant Blu-ray Review

MGM - Fox
2008 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 120 min. / Street Date May 19, 2009 / 39.95
Starring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Kevin McNally.
Newton Thomas Sigel
Production Design Lilly Kilvert, Patrick Lumb
Film Editor, Original Music John Ottman
Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Nathan Alexander
Produced by Gilbert Adler, Christopher McQuarrie, Bryan Singer
Directed by Bryan Singer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tom Cruise versus Adolf Hitler.

Valkyrie surprised everyone last Christmas by turning out to be a rather good historical thriller. Media outlets eager to give Tom Cruise a hard time played up unflattering images of the star-producer-studio head saluting in a German uniform with an eye-patch, looking like a teenager playing dress-up. As it turns out Valkyrie is a perfectly acceptable true story of wartime intrigue. Cruise is both subdued and sympathetic as the conscience-stricken Staff Colonel in Hitler's Army who spearheads a tragically unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the 20th century's most kill-worthy human monster. Hot director Bryan Singer's film, written by collaborators Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, is a "by the numbers" telling of the tense events in Berlin and East Prussia on July 20 1944.

In his interview appearance writer McQuarrie explains that he knew little about the assassination attempt before a 2002 business trip to Berlin; Valkyrie has the odd feeling of a heartfelt movie made by a generation that considers WW2 ancient history. The assassination attempt and its aftermath are also no secret, having been touched on more than a few times in movies as different as The Desert Fox, Is Paris Burning? and The Night of the Generals, to name just three.

Valkyrie is of course designed for the millions that know nothing of history before American Idol and think that all Germans were Nazis and Nazis were invented to provide villains for escapist war comedies. A group of dissident generals is getting nowhere with a plan to overturn Hitler and the Reich until Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise), a veteran mutilated in combat, volunteers to personally carry a bomb into a Hitler staff meeting. We see an earlier aborted murder attempt; Hitler is never in one place long enough for even a suicide bomber to strike (and there were attempts). Even shakier is the coalition of understandably petrified officers lined up to assume power after von Stauffenberg's killing blast: the plan is to claim that the assassination is part of an SS coup attempt. Various nervous officers are given excellent portrayals by top talents like Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp. An almost unrecognizable Carice van Houten (who should be a big star by now, after her superb playing in Black Book) is von Stauffenberg's understanding hausfrau, who knows that her life and that of her children are forfeit if her husband's plan goes awry.

Historical revisionism: Good Germans and Bad Germans.

The problem with Valkyrie is that it doesn't have much of a point beyond its 'just the facts' portrayal of events. The characterization of the German army and the paranoid atmosphere in the Reich does not ring true either. McQuarrie's script reminds us of late 1950s revisionism that clearly wanted the world to forget Nazis in favor of helping Germany oppose the Soviet threat. Marlon Brando's "kinder, gentler" German officer in The Young Lions is shocked and demoralized to discover that racism, arrogance and sadism exist in the Nazified ranks of the Wehrmacht. Similarly, Tom Cruise's von Stauffenberg and his rebel cohorts behave like conscientious objectors at a peace rally. Most every staff officer we meet is a closet rebel, eager to oppose Nazi tyranny.

The movie underplays the bureaucratic reign of Nazi terror. Each of these staff officers would have daily contact with many underlings and peers constantly checking for questionable behaviors or remarks. Von Stauffenberg's mutineers must have been under incredible strain at all times.

The movie also implies, I believe wrongly, that the conspirators were motivated primarily by altruism. The real rebels were military conservatives that wanted Hitler gone to save their Germany, the one with elite family lines that enjoyed traditional privileges. They weren't against Hitler so much as they were against his military incompetence. At this point in the war the generals were hoping that by removing Hitler they could appeal for a truce. Had Hitler been assassinated earlier, these same rebel generals would surely have continued to prosecute the war, probably with more success.

Yes, the conspirators were morally outraged by the Nazi atrocities, too. Valkyrie's take on history isn't false, but it elevates the conspirators too high on the scale of heroism. The film's rebels behave as if they were on our side, when they were simply fed up with the damage Hitler was inflicting on their nation.

The fantastic plan to overthrow the Third Reich.

The film rightly presents Von Stauffenberg's daring plan as a do-or-die gamble. Hitler has the German people completely in his thrall, which means that any outcome that doesn't include killing Der Führer is doomed. And Hitler's cronies are brilliant bureaucratic strategists. One of the best scenes has Dr. Goebbels turning back the tide of the coup in one simple move, by putting an officer come to arrest him in direct phone contact with Adolf Hitler. Goebbles has a poison capsule in his mouth, just in case --- in twenty years of Nazi power plays he had bluffed his way out of more than a few tight spots.

Tom Cruise, director Singer and United Artists have assembled an impressive production, filming in many of the actual Berlin locations where the historical events took place. The show begins with a battle in North Africa, to give the movie an action scene. To their credit, the filmmakers don't insert extraneous gunfights or make von Stauffenberg into a one-eyed, one-handed kickboxing dervish. They also pull back from depicting the horrifying fate of many of the conspirators in gory detail -- those executed by military firing squad were the lucky ones. The film's spoken language is English, which hurts our involvement -- all those Germans sound as if they belong in the English House of Lords. The last few years have seen a resurgence of excellent German-made films about WW2 and the Cold War, all of which are recommended: The Lives of Others, The Counterfeiters, The Tunnel. One only need look at the superb Downfall to see a truly insightful, gripping historical film. Valkyrie is good, but not quite in the same class.

MGM/Fox's Blu-ray of Bryan Singer's Valkyrie looks sharp and detailed in HD, with crisp aerial shots of staff cars winding their way through the woods to the scene of the assassination, Wolf's Lair. The battle scene uses real aircraft and thus avoids CGI cartoon effects, all for the better.

The disc has two commentaries with Cruise, Singer and his writers. Five polished HD featurettes cover the production, the African shoot, the airplanes, the Berlin locations, and a tour of the historical coup sites conducted by von Stauffenberg's grandson, a very pleasant gentleman. The featurettes are far too eager to praise Tom Cruise, Singer and the writers. Every production member frames his enthusiasm for the production in terms of Cruise's brilliant leadership, etc. This is the norm for studio puffery but it's particularly acute here. Cruise and Bryan Singer also appear on stage at a screening seminar taped in New York.

Almost atoning for the extras' air of self-congratulation is The Valkyrie Legacy, a feature length historical documentary on the assassination attempt that encompasses seventy years of German history. Testimony from a score of conspirator descendants adds an intimate touch to the story, which goes beyond Valkyrie to chart the fates of the victims -- and their families. Acceptance of the conspirators as patriots didn't come until ten years later, when Cold War politics resulted in the production of two German features extolling the sacrifice of von Stauffenberg. Unfortunately, the exhaustive docu ends by bringing the Valkyrie production into the picture, as if Tom Cruise's movie is the capstone in the righting of historical wrongs. When the docu took that turn, I tuned out.

One featurette and docu participant is the only surviving conspirator. His trial for treason was never finished because an Allied bomb killed the fanatic Nazi judge presiding at his trial. This is the judge that screamed at the other conspirators as he sentenced them to death on meat hooks. As the Reich fell and the bureaucracy crumbled, the lucky defendant was put into prison, where he stayed until the liberation.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Valkyrie Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentaries, featurettes, long-form docu.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2009

Republished by arrangement with Film.com

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the
2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.

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