Published December 26, 2008
Say what you will about Tom Cruise’s acting in other movies; in "Valkyrie," which opened yesterday, he is awful. Amid British and European actors, Cruise stands out like a sore thumb. He doesn’t even attempt a German accent, his mannerisms are all from his "Jerry Maguire" era, and his earnestness suggests at best some kind of fictional American soldier trying to infiltrate the Luftwaffe. You knew it would be bad, and it is.
I’m more concerned that “Valkyrie” could represent a new trend in filmmaking: Nazi apologia. We know already what Valkyrie is about: a group of German soldiers who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944 and failed. Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg—referred to in this film constantly as “Stauffenberg”—as if to make him sound less German or something.
On top of that, there is the matter of the uniforms and the set design. Suddenly, we have German officers in World War II who are not wearing arm bands. Their swastikas are now small tokens on chests of medals. They look more like airline pilots than Nazi soldiers. When they meet, it looks like they’re at a lovely retreat in the Adirondacks. Director Bryan Singer is so sparing with his Nazi flags, swastikas, etc that you’d think the Nazis hardly existed. What’s everyone so upset about anyway?
Because in “Valkyrie” Singer opens the door to a dangerous new thought: that the Holocaust and all the other atrocities could be of secondary important to the cause of German patriotism. Not once in “Valkyrie” do any of there “heroes” mention what’s happening around them, that any of them is appalled by or against what they know is happening or has happened: Hitler has systemically killed millions in the most barbaric ways possible to imagine.
It’s kind of galling to allow now, in 2008, that von Stauffenberg et al were either totally unaware of this, or that they felt their mission superceded it. In “Valkyrie,” at the expense of making a joke, they are almost like Franz Liebkin, author of Mel Brooks’s fictitious “Springtime for Hitler.” His famous line in “The Producers” is: “War? What war? We vas in the back. We didn’t see a thing!”
Seriously, if, as it’s suggested even by a writer like William Shirer (back in 1960, and a bit naively), that von Stauffenberg was put off by “anti-Jewish pogroms” that “first cast doubts in his mind about Hitler,” why did it take him roughly six years to do so something about it? The damage, as history bears it, was grievously done.
But Shirer also notes in “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”: “…when the war came, he threw himself into it with characteristic energy, making name for himself as a staff officer…in the campaigns in Poland and France.” What do we think he was doing then: organizing bake sales or helping to direct millions to the ovens?
This may not be so surprising coming from Singer, who counts among his films the onerous “Apt Pupil,” which fictionalizes the Holocaust and concentration camps. Maybe it’s because he’s relatively young in perspective to the Holocaust, but with these two movies Singer seems to be taking the subject matter in a strange direction post-"Schindler’s List," "Shoah," "The Last Days," and countless other works that brought the truth of the Holocaust into focus at last on film.
Singer has said in interviews: “I think it's very important for us and for history to know that not all Germans were Nazis and that some paid with their lives for opposing Hitler.” Frankly, this is a mistake. Is he really suggesting that the extermination of 6 million people was carried out without the complicity of these so-called non-Nazi Germans? Because that opens the door to a lot of other questions. I can only think of the Holocaust survivor in James Moll’s amazing documentary, “The Last Days,” who confronts her Hungarian neighbors 50 years later. “Didn’t you wonder what happened to us?” she asks.
“Valkyrie” is frustratingly stupid in this regard. Hitler is not frightening anymore. He reminded me of Leo G. Carroll in “The Man from UNCLE,’ a doddering fool with a British accent and a nice suit. He actually addresses his German radio audience in English. Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie make the rest of the Nazis just so out upon and sympathetic. The purpose of all this de-Nazification of course is to trick us into thinking ‘These are the good guys’ when there weren’t any good guys at all. The real story of “Valkyrie” is that is infighting among the enemy.
That much is completely forgotten in Singer’s film. It’s quite unlike another film out right now, Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader.” In this one, no one gets off the hook. Kate Winslet’s unsparing portrayal of a concentration camp guard never asks for sympathy. In “Valkyrie,” Singer works overtime trying to get us to feel something for the Nazis played by Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, all nice guys and friendly faces we know from other movies. But you know what? The characters they played were German army just as brutal as Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler. If they’d succeeded in killing Hitler, there was no guarantee anything would have changed. And that wasn’t their point anyway.
As far as “Valkyrie” itself goes, Singer soft pedals the Nazi aspects as much as possible. Then he turns it into a “Mission: Impossible” movie, complete with a version of “M” who shows von Stauffenberg’s gang different kinds of weapons and gadgets. As the group carries out its mission, Singer does build suspense. But frankly, when the assassination attempt fails, the movie simply conks out. There’s no place for it to go. Cruise, et al proceed thinking they’ve succeeded. But the audience knows they haven’t, we know what’s coming, and the insurgents seem kind of deluded and naïve.
Cruise can’t decide how often to wear von Stauffenberg’s eye patch, so sometimes he pretends to have a glass eye. Sometimes he uses the glass eye a calling card—a rather unexplored and loony subplot. His American accent gets very bad, to the point where he’s dropping g’s—as in “What are you gonna do?” He is completely miscast. Also, for some reason they’ve teased his hair. At his diminutive size, he more resembles Charlie Chaplin from “The Great Dictator.”
It’s a tribute to Nighy and some of the other actors that I could follow or care about their characters. But frankly, when the violins come out at the end of the film, and Singer flashes their written fates on the screen, I felt nothing for them and anger for him. The idea that you’re supposed to feel anything but revulsion for all these people is astonishing to me.
Eartha Kitt’s extraordinary career is memorialized all over the media today. My memory of her was from September 2001, right after 9/11, when she participated in Nile Rodgers’s “We Are Family” recording for charity. There were dozens of famous performers in the recording studio, from Diana Ross to Patti Labelle, but it was Kitt, then about 73, who stole the day. She sang danced up a storm, even doing some sweet break dancing with African singer Angelique Kidjo, and wowing the crowd. Spike Lee was filming that day so maybe the footage exists somewhere. Kitt, once “Catwoman” to a generation of kids, just shined. She will be sorely missed…
…Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” opens today with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio very far from their “Titanic” relationship. The movie is tough, but go see it for their performances. If nothing else, I hope “Rev Road” stimulates interest permanently its late author, Richard Yates. A beautiful but often forgotten writer, Yates’s other works—“The Easter Parade,” “Disturbing the Peace,” his collected short stories—should be filed with literary classics in bookstores and libraries right up there with Cheever and O’Hara. By the way, if you’re a “Mad Men” fan, then “Rev Road” is for you… And Thomas Newman’s score is excellent…