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Scott Mendelson

Scott Mendelson
Woodland Hills, California, United States
April 02
A ten-year Salon reader, Mendelson also has a film and politics blog/column at Mendelon's Memos: located at: He is also a free lance voice over artist and occasionally contributes film reviews for

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Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 17, 2008 5:15PM

Review: Valkyrie (2008)

Rate: 6 Flag
120 minutes
rated PG-13
by Scott Mendelson

Films that are based on true stories of failure and/or disaster can often make superior suspense yarns then those whose outcome is theoretically unknown. If the film can trick the audience into forgetting that they know the story already, it is a sure sign that all is well. Furthermore, tension can be explicitly built into the foreknowledge of doom, where the suspense comes not from ‘will it all go wrong?’ but rather ‘how will it all go wrong?’.

A bit of plot: Bryan Singer’s period suspense tale Valkyrie concerns the last of over a dozen separate plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler during the reign of the Third Reich. The plot that is presented here is unique because it was the only one that specifically dealt with what to do after Der Führer had been killed. Colonel Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) has just been seriously wounded on the battlefield in Africa near the end of the war. Fed up with Hitler’s various tyrannical misdeeds, at the expense of Germany’s honor, Stauffenberg soon finds himself aligned with an elite inner circle of trusted Nazi officers who seek a common goal and a common ideology. Together, they hatch a scheme to not only kill Adolph Hitler, but to use an existing contingency plan (‘project Valkyrie’) to take complete political power in Germany and negotiate an end to the war.

Singer takes this little known piece of history and turns it into a tense, ensemble caper picture. As the plan unfolds, the picture begins to resemble a 1940s version of Mission: Impossible. Like the feature film variation, Tom Cruise plays the ‘point man’ of sorts, while the supporting cast nervously does their part to ensure the successful treason at work. Since the failure of said plot is a historical given, writers Nathan Alexander and Christopher McQuarrie (the latter teaming with Bryan Singer for the first time since The Usual Suspects) smartly concentrate as much on the aftermath of said plot as the build-up.

While this is certainly a star vehicle for Tom Cruise, the supporting cast of elders gets their moments to shine as well. Kenneth Branagh’s initial scene, involving Bill Nighy and a duplicitous case of wine, is a true armrest grabber. Tom Wilkinson shines as a power-hungry commander whose loyalties shift per the given occasion. Terence Stamp has a weary, beaten down sense of foreboding defeat, almost cursing himself for resorting to treason and murder. Carice van Houten appears briefly as Stauffenberg’s wife; apparently because Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer liked Paul Verehoven’s Black Book as much as I did. It should be noted that each actor is permitted to speak in his or her natural accent, but it works surprisingly well as you stop noticing after the first five minutes (ala- The Hunt For Red October, Tom Cruise speaks his first several lines in German and then slowly segues into English).

Whether this will be ‘Tom Cruise’s comeback vehicle’ is irrelevant. It is every bit as good as most commercially-minded Tom Cruise pictures (think The Last Samurai or Minority Report) and reminds viewers that, personal issues aside, Cruise is one of the biggest movie stars of the last fifty years for a reason. He is a solid actor, has uncommonly good taste in material, and continues to work with the very best directors possible. It’s cool to do so now, but the young Cruise using his star power to work with challenging filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone was a new or reemerging idea in the 1980s. That he surrounds himself with veteran actors like Stamp and Branagh shows respect for the film as a whole, rather than merely his own screen image (just as casting Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the villain in Mission: Impossible 3, knowing full well that Hoffman would easily steal the movie and the critical huzzahs, shows a certain courage).

Valkyrie just misses out on being a great film (it’s no Black Book), but it easily merits mention as a good one. The third act has far too many scenes of nameless troops racing around to apprehend other nameless troops, and the scenes with Cruise and van Houten drag the pace of what should be a tight procedural thriller (more emotional impact is gained from fleeting glimpse of family photos than from any family bonding scenes). But the set pieces are tense and logical, and the story allows Singer to literally use the ‘bomb under the table’ bit that Hitchcock discussed as an archetypical suspense scenario. Singer and Cruise have made a fine historical pulse racer that is surprisingly satisfying and tense. Before Cruise’s 2005 couch-jumping antics, it was taken for granted that a Tom Cruise thriller would be at least this good. Valkyrie is every bit as good as you remember a Tom Cruise movie being, back when you still liked Tom Cruise.

Grade: B

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Scott - thanks for a clear and thorough review. I've been off Tom Cruise for awhile now - too many of his latest have been just big & loud & over the top not to mention the personal stuff - but I am willing to give this one a try, as I'm sure the dh will want to see it.
Valkyrie is every bit as good as you remember a Tom Cruise movie being, back when you still liked Tom Cruise.

Heh. I have gone out of my way to avoid Tom Cruise movies for a long, long time. You might have talked me into this one...(BTW, I loved Black Book too. So few people saw that...too bad!)
I think Cruise is an under-appreciated for his acting skills. I'm looking forward to this film. You mention there were many attempts on Hitler's life, but the one portrayed here is the one that came closest to succeeding. If it had succeeded, the ramifications could have been huge, as it probably would have resulted in a great deal of pressure to come to a peace treaty well before the Soviets had established a foothold in much of Eastern Europe. The Cold War could have developed much differently than it did.

There is a book called The Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945, the personal diaries of a woman named Marie Vassiltchikov, who knew several of the primary players in the Valkyrie plot. She was not herself a part of it, but she worked for one of the main conspirators. The book was published in 1985, and might be difficult to find now, but it provides a fascinating account of the plot, as well as a first hand contemporary account of the war from the perspective of a Berlin resident.
I was going to skip this... The previews didn't entice me. I kept thinking there goes Tom Cruise wearing a Nazi costume and a rather unexpected eypatch doing his "I'm-a-serious-actor-feel-my intensity!' face and speaking in his Mission Impossible voice. Your review might make me take a look, though. Maybe...
Your last sentence, and sentiment, more than anything else, will push me to see this film, sooner rather than later (eventually, I even saw most of MI-3!). Well, I also am a complete geek for WWII movies - The Great Escape, Stalag 17 (and it's hick cousin teevee show, Stalag 13's Hogan's Heroes), Bridge/River Kwai, Dirty Dozen (I know, I know!), and my visceral fav: Patton! Oh, and I can't forget King Rat (another great novel by Clavell). Geez, and Catch 22 and Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Best Years of Our Lives and Casablanca, Run Silent Run Deep and Das Boot and Flying Tigers and Mrs. Miniver and Lifeboat, Back to Bataan and Blood on the Sun and Caine Mutiny and Ensign Pulver and Mr. Roberts and The Longest Day and Sands of Iwo Jima and Thin Red Line and
its hick cousin. its hick cousin. I hate it when I misplace an its and put in an it's. dammit.
Cruise is a brilliant actor - Rainman, Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, (I loved Risky Business, although not his best acting), Jerry McGuire, etc...Over his 25 year career he's made more good than bad. He's been hitting the talk show circuit this week, including a "kiss and make up" segment with Matt Lauer and another Oprah appearance (sans insane, juvenile sofa jumping) and he hasn't offended anyone for a while. Perhaps he broke down and started some meds...

As Scott said, personal issues aside, he is a magnificent MOVIE STAR. He's actually a great combo of both. That's rare. He has on-screen charisma and that smile. The smile actually creeps me out a bit, but I'm a hetero male so I'm not the one to judge his sex-appeal. My wife can't stand him now since he ripped Brooke Shields, but hey, the man has tried to apologize, a little bit. If he's just keep his opinions to himself, things would be better off for him. Actors need to stay off their soap boxes. Let their money and their actions do their talking.

I look forward to the film.
Nice review, about what I expected.

Thanks for the great review. You almost had me. But to me, Tom Cruise is always Tom Cruise, whether his has an eye patch or a Samuari sword. I just can't get past it, like one of those Where's Waldo picture puzzles. Once you see Waldo, that's all you can see.

I expect Opra and Katie and the baby and a couple of paparatizi from People to show up behind him in every scene.
I'm glad to hear this movie is good. I really want to see it but I'm pretty sure the bf won't go with me. Maybe he's not over the couch-jumping yet. Also, I happen to know he didn't see that hilarious cameo in Tropic Thunder. His loss. I loved that cameo!
And Black Book, which I saw with my one filmie friend and which I can't seem to convince anyone else to watch. *sigh*
But...does Cruise have a running scene? He always has a running scene, usually about 50 hard, pumping yards. Not long, but showy.

Procopius, I'm going to try to find that book, thx for including the info. I'm very interested in the topic matter of the movie so I'd see it with or without Cruise, and I could care less about couch-jumping Hollywood romances, has nothing to do at all with whether the actor is worth $10 to plunk down on a movie. This review says, I should see it on the big screen - so I will!

thanks, great post.
sorry to go all Hannah Arendt on this movie but, who really wants to see a movie that sympathizes with Nazis. I know they are trying to kill Hitler, but it is like three years after Germany has been declared Judenrein. At this point even Himmler is starting to disobey the fuher and dismantle the final solution, which incidentally all of these militairy leaders would have known about for years. The only reason they acted at all was because they new that Germany was going to lose. Personally I'm tired of WWII mythology.
And what is with releasing it on christmas. Terrible idea even if the execution is very shiny and nice.
@Lewis, the Christmas release is Oscar-related. If they want to be in contention for an Oscar in the spring, they have to release by the end of the year.
The previews do make it look like a good action thriller, and Cruise IS a good actor. But I'm just not sure about the Nazi thing, and I don't quite think I'm over the whole Brooke Shields thing. The couch-jumping thing would have been funny but for that. So I am very conflicted.
Thanks for the balanced review.