BRYAN SINGER's Valkyrie must walk the fine line between Godwin's Law and mass entertainment. For those of you unfamiliar with internet flame wars and their (un)spoken rules, Godwin's law states that during the course of an argument (particularly one unfolding on an internet message board), if one participant accuses another of being a Nazi or makes a comparison to Adolf Hitler, the accuser has automatically lost both the argument and credibility in general. How, then, to make a Christmas blockbuster that pleases large audiences generally ignorant of the historical events that inspired it without resorting to the old Dirty Dozen aesthetic of shoot-everyone-in-a-gray-uniform-with-a-funny-accent? One way to avoid this is to take a bare-bones, just-the-facts-ma'am approach to narrative. That’s the strategy that Singer employs in Valkyrie, which doesn't aspire to be much more than a relatively well-acted docudrama.
The film opens with the problem at the heart of Hitler's Germany: soldiers had to swear allegiance to Hitler himself, rather than to their country. There were many, including Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), who began to feel that Hitler's actions were a disgrace to Germany. To prove to the rest of the world that Germany was not the kind of country into which Hitler was transforming it, Stauffenberg and others began engaging in acts of espionage with the goal of not only assassinating Hitler but gaining effective control of the government as well. And if that wasn’t ambitious enough, they further planned on negotiating a surrender with the ever-approaching Allies before the imminent defeat of Berlin.
Valkyrie does a good job unpacking some of the complexities of a coup, but falters when it comes to documenting the individual lives of the people involved. We know very little of the personal and political motivations of even Cruise's character. We know vaguely that he's doing it for Germany, though we are not sure about his vision for the country. The actual history of the event reveals Stauffenberg had much more compelling motivations than the film lets on, including his connection to the poet Stefan George and the almost cult-like societies that formed around his ideas, as well as the fact that Stauffenberg had been loyal to the Nazi cause most of his career. But screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (with whom Singer worked on The Usual Suspects) sacrifices that on the altar of detailing the assassination attempts. We know even less about the political motivations of the other men involved in the plot; as with Stauffenberg, we only know they want to kill Hitler. In this sense, without purposefully invoking it, Singer nonetheless breaks Godwin's Law (or at least comes close). Why do these men want to kill Hitler? Because he's Hitler, of course. At least, given the lack of any other apparent motivation, this is the only explanation we're left with.
With this bit of omission, Valkyrie avoids the real issue at stake: how best to serve a country that has become a country you cannot love? Because Singer doesn't dramatize that struggle, he must keep the storytelling terse. So instead of drawing emotional power from Stauffenberg's wife and children, they simply become teary eyes and stock slo-mo footage, added to attempt moments of intense sentiment.
One must wonder why a major movie would be so intensely concerned with reenacting the minute details of an assassination plot when we could simply read a history book. Shouldn't the purpose of a dramatic movie be to explore the emotional mindsets of the characters, even if it’s partly speculative)? (An extreme example of what Valkyrie needs more of are Terrence Malick’s films, which are typically unconcerned with the particulars of events and instead focus on the spiritual and emotional state of the players.) Not to say Valkyrie should have neglected the historical facts, but much could have been made of the political machinations operating behind the scenes of the Valkyrie plot. The movie misses that, too. What it does tell, it tells well, but in the end it loses one opportunity after another to truly bring this story to life.
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