Monday, February 02, 2009

On the Big Screen...

dir. Bryan Singer, 2009

It's easy to mock Tom Cruise. Indeed, with some of his phoned-in performances, he's indulged in the sport himself. His latest offering, Valkyrie, is a Hollywood retelling of the 1944 Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler. It has received what charitably might be described as mixed reviews, the bulk of the criticism boiling down to "it's got Tom Cruise in it". Cruise is a better actor than he's given credit for (he's effective in Born on the Fourth of July, The Last Samurai and action films like Minority Report are pretty good). If there are question marks around his performance as the genuinely heroic Stauffenburg, they relate at least much to the script and direction, which deliberately make Stauffenburg's inner life opaque.

I think Valkyrie is actually a pretty good film, and it makes some interesting narrative choices. Most reviews observe rather snootily that Bryan Singer (director of the immensely over-rated The Usual Suspects*) has chosen to make the film as a thriller. Presumably critics would have preferred to see something more cerebral, along the lines of Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, a subtler and more reflective film about another attempt to assassinate Hitler. Singer has chosen a different path, though, and should be judged on the film he's made, not the one someone else might have done.

The technical challenge in making a thriller about the Stauffenberg plot is that Hitler doesn't die (sorry if that comes as a spoiler). You know from the start that the protagonist will fail -- so where's the thrill? Unlike Agent of Grace, Singer doesn't fill the space by showing us what's going on in Stauffenberg's head. In a brief prologue, Cruise is shot up even while deciding that Hitler has to go. Instead of reflection, Singer gives us the mechanics of the plot, and in particular the dynamics between the conspirators. Bill Nighy, as the vacillating General Olbricht whose hesitation fatally undermines the scheme, and Tom Wilkinson's General Fromm--determined to be on the winning side, whichever that is--are both standouts in an excellent ensemble cast.

Singer also makes a virtue of necessity by deploying a superb piece of dramatic irony. For half an hour of screen time, the conspirators believe they have succeeded, and that Hitler is dead (the mechanics of why he isn't are very neatly worked out, underscored by a clever shot of the open windows which will disperse the blast). The audience knows, of course, that Hitler is still alive, and Singer milks it for all it's worth.

I've blogged fairly extensively about Rome recently (with which Valkyrie shares several cast members), and David Isaak made the excellent point that, when the audience knows the bones of the story already, it frees the creator to make some different narrative choices. This is clearly the case with Valkyrie. Singer chooses to emphasise the tension of what the plot must have felt from the inside, using the audience's knowledge of the outcome to underline just how much the characters are risking. He's also strong on the logistics of the plot; the anatomisation of the post-coup hours could scarcely be improved.

Valkyrie emphasises the "how" of the Stauffenberg plot over the "why" (the question of historical accuracy is by-the-by here - the film hangs together on its own terms). That is perhaps the heart of its poor reception (over and above Tom Cruise...), but Singer has made an absorbing film which does full justice to the heroism of the men who sacrificed themselves in their attempt to shorten the war and restore pride in their country. As the film makes clear, success in that latter aim was their enduring achievement.

* films lauded for "unguessable twists" usually turn on one of two lame devices: the protagonist is really the villain, or the protagonist is really dead (see The Sixth Sense, similarly overpraised for the same reasons).


David Isaak said...

I agree with you entirely about Tom Cruise; the fact that he plays the same flat character over and over doesn't mean he's a bad actor.

He was fun and funny in his early role in Risky Business, and I thought he was hilarious in the recent Tropic Thunder. But I think his finest moment is in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. He won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for that role, and he deserved (and was nominated for but didn't get) the Oscar.

Oh, by the way--we're watching Rome now, and are on the fifth episode. It looks as if it will be a while before we get to the end of it--but thanks for the recommendation!

David Isaak said...

PS. I quite like The Usual Suspects. I agree that the 'shocking' plot line is overrated, but I love the acting ensemble. In particular, the more I watch Benicio del Toro's deliberately incomprehensible mumbling (and watch the other actors trying to work with it), the funnier it gets.

Tim Stretton said...

Cruise also more than held his own against Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, in an unshowy role where the screenwriters dealt Hoffman all the cards.

Rome can take over your life - we ended up watching both series in a month: a glorious televisual experience.

Maybe I need to give The Usual Suspects another go. There was nothing wrong with it, but the twist screams a mile away and devalued the rest for me. There are plenty of better heist movies out there!

Unknown said...

I loved Tom Cruise in Magnolia. I also think he's great in Jerry Maguire and Minority Report. Always watchable.

Verification word - the little known Italian dance craze of motioni.