You have to hand it to Tom Cruise. To stake your Hollywood capital on playing a one-eyed, one-armed World War Two German officer is a brave, brave move. His performance in 'Valkyrie', however, much like the film itself, is competent and successful, but never as enthralling or believable as an endeavour of this kind has to be.
Set in 1944, the film chronicles the bomb plot in July of that year to kill Adolf Hitler. One of history's greatest 'what ifs', it was to be the closest anyone came to killing the Fuhrer until he and Eva Braun committed suicide in a bunker as Berlin went up in flames.
Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) is a Colonel who has become disillusioned with Hitler's running of the war and Nazi Germany in general. Stationed on the front lines in Tunisia, he is injured during a bombing raid and loses his left eye, right hand and two fingers of his left hand.
When he comes to Berlin, von Stauffenberg is quickly recruited into the German Resistance (principal among them Nighy, Branagh and Stamp's characters) which has coordinated a dozen or so previously unsuccessful attempts on Hitler's life.
Von Stauffenberg has the idea of reworking the German contingency plan, codename 'Operation Valkyrie', so that the German Reserve Army could be deployed against the Nazi leadership and the SS. The Colonel manages to amend the plan so that should Hitler be killed, 'Operation Valkyrie' would hand the running of Germany over to the Wehrmacht, headed by the German Resistance members.
Needing Hitler (Bamber) to sign off on the amended plan, von Stauffenberg visits him and elicits his signature. Having convinced communications officer General Fellgiebel (Izzard) to cut all communications from Hitler's bunker, the Wolf's Lair, after the bomb attempt has been made, thus giving the resistance valuable time to implement Valkyrie, the stage is set for the ill-fated attempt.
Needless to say for anyone with a smattering of World War Two knowledge, the plan is ultimately unsuccessful and von Stauffenberg and his plucky band of resistance plotters are all arrested and shot.
The film sticks very much to the facts of the day and was praised by German critics for its accuracy in detailing the resistance and bomb plot. Had their native language been English, however, they may have guffawed or simply scratched their heads at the assortment of accents which the film contains. Most of the resistance has upper-class British accents, Hitler, however, speaks in a heavily German-accented English, while our hero retains his American drawl. It ends up being puzzling, distracting and does the film no favours.
Leaving accents aside, where the film suffers most is its depth, or lack thereof. In real life, Claus von Stauffenberg was a fascinating character. An aristocratic Roman Catholic, historians remain divided over his motives for resistance. In 'Valkyrie', however, there is no depth to him, the audience is simply introduced to a man who wants to kill Hitler, and that, it seems, should be good enough not to warrant further exploration. Hitler is only a peripheral character, and the attempt on his life is strangely glossed over. Considering director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie's last collaboration was 'The Usual Suspects', it's somewhat surprising and disappointing.
Likewise, the depiction of 1944 Berlin is shallow and one-dimensional. Whereas a film like 'Downfall' managed to convey the hopelessness, futility and terror at the end of World War Two, Valkyrie focuses solely on the bomb plot, which gives the audience no perspective to the great risks these men were taking.
The film works best in its guise as a straight-up thriller. A little slow to start, 'Valkyrie's pace quickens in the second half, as officers dither over the execution of the bomb plot, climaxing with the failed attempt on Hitler's life. Considering that the ending is never in doubt, the fact that 'Valkryie' still manages to have enough suspense and tension to keep an audience engrossed is no small achievement.
Most rewarding and revealing is how close the plan actually came to success. As confusion reigns following the attempt, Valkyrie is implemented and many members of the SS are arrested. For anyone with a passing interest in World War Two, it presents a fascinating exercise in what could have been.