Friday, February 06, 2009


Mark Reed on Brian Singer's new film.

Tom Cruise clearly divides film fans. Sometimes, he's easily the worst thing in the film, a goddamn nuts one-note Scientologist moonunit who tries to be the Everyman character but ends up being a psychological freak who speaks in what sounds like English (but isn't), tries to demonstrates emotions but instead demonstrates facsimiles of feeling, and never quite convinces me, because Tom Cruise is too famous to act, because I cannot forget whenever I see him that I am not watching Von Stauffenberg, but I'm watching Tom Cruise in an eyepatch and a grey hat.

Sometimes, his limited emotional palette - which never truly convinces me - suits certain films fine. The Mission Impossible and Top Gun films, and even Eyes Wide Shut Cruise was surprisingly good. Then again, Kubrick would raise anyone's game. Still, Nazi's are cool. They had uniforms designed by Hugo Boss, after all. All those peaked caps, iconography and muted colours. Cor. Maybe that's why the Nazi's have caught our attention for so long, that sense of natty oppressive fashion. That, and World War II was the first war to be captured on news film and subject to the world of the 'talkies'. In these current times, the sense of good vs evil is a lot more ambigious, in those, relatively simpler times, it was fairly obvious, there were The Commie-Nazis, and the Goodies.

From the off, the film portrays a world of shades of grey. Maybe I'm projecting our current political state in the film, but the idea of disgruntled soldiers in the desert questioning the morality and righteousness of the cause seems reminiscent of recent history: and if that is intentional, in one way, the film could be seen as justifying an assasination attempt upon leaders because the human cost is clearly seen whilst also showing the architecture of a mindset that moves people around as if they were chess pieces on a board. Fast forward, and Stauffenberg is rehabilitated into Berlin.

There's a tense, somewhat nailbiting first prologue which - if you know nothing about the film or the plot - actually means little until after the event. That, and the fact that the films main target, Sir Adolf of Hitler spends most of the film as a shadow, a cipher, a name, a painted image, and only appears in three or four scenes, and - most of the time - is barely visible, with only a handful of lines of dialogue. This works effectively. The temptation when you have Hitler in anything is to allow him to dominate the movie, and any on-screen Hitler who isn't Bruno Ganz is a letdown, and so Singer effectively underplays the role.

Nonetheless, the film is a brisk, effective two hours, made of effective casting (Eddie Izzard is somewhat surprisingly understated) and a realistic mise-en-scene using the remaining locations where possible. Like any similar film, half of the tension is in the planning, the judicious use of flash-fowards and possible worlds to forecast what may - or may not - happen, which aptly foreshadows tension... and keeps the snorers awake. If anything this film reminds me of a maudlin caper film from the Sixties; where all of the film is in the planning and the setting up of 'the job', whatever it is, be it bank heist, assasination, political coup, and the tension comes from not what will happen, but what goes wrong.

What is compelling about the film is the dilemmas it still presents us now. How close the plot came, what happened, how the whole thing hinged on one decision by one man in one office who couldn't decided which way to turn, about one hundred tiny changes to our everyday lives, where to stand, the temperature, rain, all these things, and how most of us are often unwitting participants in huge plots of which no one person knows everything, or even, most things. When the house of cards that is the plot starts to fall, we all see how fragile every plan we have is, how high the stakes are, and how lucky al of us are to have anything in our lives.

Valkyrie is an intense and compelling film that lays clear a fascinating fragment of history that is rarely touched upon, and acts, in a way, as a rather brilliant prequel to the masterful Downfall. Recommended.

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