December 24, 2008


Pirates of the Aryan

Grade: B

Director: Bryan Singer

Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Kevin McNally, and Christian Berkel

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours

In war, the difference between courage and treachery often lies along the dividing line between victory and defeat. Substitute a triumph by the Confederacy during the American Civil War and history books would treat the acts of John Wilkes Booth and his cadre of co-conspirators to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and topple the upper rungs of the U.S. government as daring blows for liberty landed against a tyrannical foe.

That Adolph Hitler was a ruthless, murderous madman is beyond dispute. Yet, he also inspired millions of Germans as their leader and marched them into worldwide war. In Valkyrie, director Bryan Singer assumes that audiences will automatically embrace the virtue behind the true story of a group of German soldiers who carried out a plan to kill Hitler and topple the Schutzstaffel during “July 20 plot” of 1944. Branded as traitors at the time, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators are memorialized today as heroes, in Germany and abroad.

Yet, while the righteousness of their purpose seems obvious in retrospect, the path of how political and military leaders who swore an allegiance to their country and its Führer came to rebel against them deserves more than a passing presumption. Instead, Singer – directing his third foray into Nazi subject-matter (Apt Pupil and the X-Men prologue) – drops us squarely into the plot’s planning stages, eschewing any examination of the plotters’ motives, including, for example, the belief by some in the old guard that, with Hitler gone, Germany could join with the Western allies to stem the Bolshevik tide sweeping in from the Soviet Union.

Already harboring doubts about Hitler, Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) loses a hand, two fingers, and his left eye on the battlefields of North Africa. Afterwards, he takes a series of posts in Berlin that position him closer to Hitler in preparation for the assassination attempt. From there, Singer delves into the cloak-and-dagger intrigue behind the plot’s planning and execution, from developing the means and opportunity to kill Hitler to insuring the coup d’état’s success during the chaotic aftermath.

Illustrating the procedural aspects of the plot is where Valkyrie shines, thanks to Singer’s finely tuned pacing and lavish production values. Much of the filming took place on location in Germany, including rare permission from the government to shoot at the Bendlerblock, a historic locale crucial to the story. Even Tom Cruise’s ill-fitting American accent, the subject of much preproduction press, gets forgotten amid the actor’s trademark intensity and a coterie of British actors – Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, Kevin McNally, and Tom Wilkinson – giving their crisp, buttoned-up best in key supporting roles.

What’s missing, however, is sufficient motive for these stolid, conservative officers to break so radically with military tradition; such a ‘why’ would compliment Singer’s glossy rendering the plot’s intricate ‘how.’ Still, Valkyrie maintains its momentum without feeling rushed, and the story remains taut despite its foregone outcome.

Neil Morris

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