‘Valkyrie’ movie review: Tom Cruise plots to kill Hitler in WWII thriller

A compelling if inauthentic World War II thriller, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie is suspenseful and exciting and works well enough on popcorn terms to warrant a recommendation even if it doesn’t always feel just right. 

It involves the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler, the last of many, the film tells us. We all know what happens, right? The plan fails. 

But Valkyrie doesn’t play out as a tragedy, which is what you might expect; no, despite the audience knowing the ultimate outcome, Singer presents more or less a straightforward thriller, and when it works, it really works. There’s one truly great scene here – the actual assassination attempt – which would have made Hitchcock proud. 

Tom Cruise stars as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who has already become disenfranchised with the Nazi movement before he loses an eye and an arm in Tunisia. 

After he regains health back in Berlin, he’s introduced to a small circle of men who think along the same lines he does by friend Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh, whose role here is disappointingly small), who has just failed to kill Hitler with a bomb hidden in a cognac bottle that didn’t go off. 

At first, von Stauffenberg is reluctant to join their ranks, feeling they may be able to kill the Fuhrer but won’t be able to take control of the country after that. Then he’s inspired, and while hiding with his family in the basement as bombs go off around them and Wagner’s Die Walküre skips around on the phonograph upstairs, he devises an intricate plan. 

Key to this plan is Operation Valkyrie, which involves the mobilization of the reserve army in case of a national emergency. The conspirators plan to rewrite the plan, kill Hitler, and use his own army to arrest SS officers and seize control of the country. 

This involves von Stauffenberg himself delivering the bomb to Hitler’s bunker the Wolf’s Lair, and then flying back to Berlin hours later to play politician. In his way is General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), leader of the reserve army and the only one who can initiate Valkyrie. The plan doesn’t work, of course, but it’s fascinating to watch how things go wrong. 

There’s a lot going on in the film – and a lot of characters to keep track of – but Singer does an excellent job of keeping things under control. Valkyrie is an extremely mannered film, not afraid to take its time to carefully explain all necessary details, and it’s Singer’s best work since The Usual Suspects

Now, these characters are German, and should be speaking German, though we can’t expect that here; a nifty little transition – Cruise’s opening narration begins in German before fading into English – helps make the language more palatable. 

But in your average film of this type, the stars would be speaking with a variety of German (or otherwise) accents and while we’d be complaining about the quality of those accents (see Harrison Ford in K-19: The Widowmaker or a seemingly infinite number of other examples) at least it would be consistent within the context of the film. 

In Valkyrie, Cruise speaks in his usual, familiar voice, and the mostly British supporting cast speaks with British accents. Then there’s a major character played by German actor Christian Berkel who speaks with a heavy German accent, along with heavy German accents in smaller roles. 

The lack of any kind of consistency is distracting throughout, despite screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s claims otherwise, and my one real gripe here. The accents from German actor Thomas Kretschmann and Dutch actress Carice van Houten here are discreetly and indistinctly ‘foreign’ and should have been employed by the rest of the cast if possible. 

It’s also strange to hear the characters say “my Fuhrer” instead of “mein Fuhrer”, but at least they leave “Heil Hitler” alone. All written communication is in German, too. 

I’m not saying any of this is right or wrong (certainly, if Hollywood found the correct solution to the accent situation they’d be employing it by now), but these small things took me out of the movie. 

The same story has been told a number of times before, notably in the 2004 German TV movie Stauffenberg, which starred Sebastian Koch as the title character, and in the 1990 US TV movie The Plot to Kill Hitler, which starred Brad Davis as Stauffenberg.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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