Holiday Movies Pre-Reviewed, Reviewed: Valkyrie

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12/26/2008 10:00 AM |

In the L’s Holiday Gift Guide Issue, we presented a Holiday Film Preview of sorts: Reviews of Movies We Haven’t Seen, banking on the predictability of the holiday-movie industrial complex, and also our own tendency to review movies before seeing them. So let’s see how we did. Here, I, who wrote the one on Valkyrie, compare my preview to my actual response.

I said…

In the most messianic star turn since Kevin Costner went postapocalyptic, Tom Cruise Atlas-shrugs the best hopes of Western Civilization as the eyepatched Claus von Stauffenberg, Hitler’s would-be assassin. [Director Bryan] Singer gets his Superman sequel after all, obligingly foreshortening as Cruise manfully leads a phalanx of coconspirators towards low-angle camera encampments.

In fact…

Well, Tom Cruise is too distracting to be much other than ridiculous, there’s just no way around it. Even when not shouty, he’s so self-consciously Serious that it takes you out of the movie – he’s Grave when seeing off his barely-there family; Purposeful when corralling his coconspirators; Moral when talking about the necessity of the plot; even Spirited when bantering.

He’s not the kind of actor, is what I’m saying, who can thrive in a movie like this, where iceberg-tipped character actors deliver low, functional, dryly colorful dialogue that serves primarily to advance the plot or phrase and rephrase the thematic stakes. Luckily, there are plenty such performers in this movie: Tom Wilkinson, Ken Branagh, Bill Nighy, and, marvelously, Terence Stamp, who’s severe and electric and scary charismatic. He has a great death scene.

As might be suspected by the mostly but not entirely submerged cast, Valkyie is actually a fairly taut conspiracy thriller, tight and pacey, without much undue flourish. But Singer, who’s made X-Men movies seem Wagnerian, works in a subject-appropriate amount of bombast, mostly through his sense of space and scale — it’s operatic without toppling over, and edited to guide (or, ok, lead) its audience along, rather than confound or overwhelm us.

It is, as L contributor Benjamin Strong points out, an ultimately banally simplistic movie, morally speaking, in its sense of heroism. (These Good Germans might be honorary members of the Greatest Generation.) But it satisfies, even if Singer has to play around rather than to Cruise’s inherent ridiculousness, like some directors have had the good sense and wavelength to do.