Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Tom Cruise,
Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas
Kretschmann, Terence Stamp
Director: Bryan Singer
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 120 Minutes
Release Date: May 19, 2009
“LONG LIVE SACRED GERMANY!”
2008 brought with it a hefty number of films set against backdrop of either World War II or the Holocaust. Among them were Miracle at St. Anna, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Reader and Defiance. Out of all these films, I can’t helped but be immensely surprised that the absolute best of the bunch was a film rumored to have quite a troubled production, not to mention the fact that the ending to this particular story is already well known.
Every movie year contains at least one major surprise, and last year’s biggest surprise was unquestionably Valkyrie. Here was a film that was generating so much negative buzz leading up to its release and was predicted to fail miserably, both critically and financially. And yet, it opened to a slew of positive reviews and fared way much better at the box office than anticipated.
And I couldn’t be happier about it defying expectations because the film is a stunning piece of expertly crafted filmmaking. It reunites director Bryan Singer with Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. Believe me when I tell you this; the same level of unshakable tension that lingered throughout Suspects finds its way into this phenomenally paced World War II thriller, which is the cinematic equivalent of a ticking time bomb.
You have to acknowledge what Singer and McQuarrie (along with co-writer Nathan Alexander) were able to pull off here, because I guarantee it wasn’t easy. The screenplay takes an actual incident from WWII and encompasses the facts within a tension filled thriller of Hitchcockian proportions. I can’t think of another fact based film that, despite having a foreseeable outcome, literally had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end.
The film paints an absorbing recreation of an attempt by a group of German soldiers to kill Adolf Hitler. There had been many attempts on Hitler’s life, all of course were unsuccessful. The last of those previous attempts is seen at the beginning of the film, as soldiers smuggle a bomb on board Hitler’s plane, only to realize that they must smuggle the bomb out again when it is learned that the plane landed safely.
The one to put the new secret operation into effect is Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise). After suffering serious battle wounds while stationed in Africa, Stauffenberg is recruited into the German resistance by its leader, Gen. Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh). Sharing the belief that ridding Germany of Hitler is only way to preserve the country’s race, Stauffenberg easily accepts his place amongst the many that have already joined the resistance.
Stauffenberg’s proposed strategy is to use one of Hitler’s very own plans against him, known as “Valkyrie”. It is the emergency plan designed for the mobilization of the reserve army, should an Allied assault take place. And so, Stauffenberg conceives of “Operation Valkyrie”, which will involve killing Hitler and then having the reserves ensure stability, at which point the first order of business will be the immobilization of the SS.
The most riveting aspect of the film is the way Singer recreates every single detail involved in executing this plan. A timeline is incorporated and used to brilliant effect in indicating the exact time something crucial happens. It’s a technique that’s been used before, and can either work for a film or against it, but it plays into the plot so amazingly well and helps add more tension to an already intense scenario.
One of the reasons many thought this movie would fail was the simple fact that the German characters are being portrayed by a big name American actor and a mostly British cast. But the film uses a neat little technique to make it work in its opening scene, in which he here Tom Cruise’s speaking in a German voiceover as he is writing a letter. We then slowly here his dialect switch over from German to English at a precise moment. It’s quite similar to the technique used in The Hunt for Red October, which had many British actors portraying Russians.
Cruise is terrifically effective in the lead role, even more so than I thought he’d be. It might be the first time he’s ever played a character with such restraint, and yet such pure intensity. And if you’re still in doubt that Cruise is right for the part of the German Stauffenberg, compare a picture of the actor with one of the real man…they look strikingly similar.
Valkyrie is quite easily one of the best fact based films in the sense that, despite the fact that you know exactly how the story is going to end, you can’t help but be caught in the film’s grip. The unrelenting tension that escalates right up to the powerful final moments is executed in such a remarkable way, you will barely have time to catch your breath. Both a fantastic historic film and a brilliant suspense thriller, Valkyrie is one of the best films of 2008.
This is a most visually striking film, and the Blu-ray from MGM definitely makes the most of every set piece in this historic thriller. The early sequence in Africa looks absolutely stunning, and is basically the only bit of brightness in the film. The rest of the movie is set in mostly darkened rooms and areas, all of which look quite tremendous in the 1080p. The amount of detail here is outstanding, both in image and color!
Sound plays a pivotal part in delivering the many jolts of suspense here, and the DTS HD brilliantly enhances the tension from beginning to end. An early sequence includes an air raid that will rock your surround sound system to great effect. And the sound never lets up from that point on, as even the sound of a plane engine roars through the channels. Some key explosion scenes pay off extremely well, and dialogue delivery and music playback are both top notch quality.
This MGM Blu-ray comes equipped with a perfect assortment of extras, starting with two commentary tracks; the first one features Tom Cruise, director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, the second includes McQuarrie and co-writer Nathan Alexander. We also get some very well handled featurettes, including “Reel Pieces with Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer”, “The Valkyrie Legacy”, “The Journey to Valkyrie”, “The Road to Resistance: A Visual Guide”, “The African Front Sequence”, “Taking to the Air” and “Recreating Berlin”.
Valkyrie is a powerfully gripping thriller about an important day in German history. The superb talents of Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer, along with a incredible supporting cast, have helped to create one of the best pieces of cinematic suspense I’ve ever seen committed to film. And it’s definitely worth experiencing on Blu-ray!