Tom Cruise Agonistes: the rigidities of Valkyrie
I confess that I couldn't watch Valkyrie except through the lens of Tom Cruise's insecurities. Now that Michael Jackson has been sadly reduced to tabloid fodder and Madonna struggles to avoid becoming grotesque, Tom, that other 80s icon, grows increasingly defensive about his media image. How many other major movie stars have bothered to fashion an elaborate website to reconstruct their reputations, complete with adoring footage from earlier movies and pretentious music (Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathusta" no less)? The website has to be seen to be believed, proclaiming over and over "Remember what a big movie star I am?" How many others gain notoriety by spouting Scientology dogma in leaked and highly popular videos? Fox of Tractor Facts asked why we tend to revile Cruise so much, and I would answer because Tom comes off as arrogant, especially in vanity projects such as Mission Impossible III. So with a blend of envy and repulsion, people would like to see him cast down like some tragic figure drunk on his hubris. One watches Cruise's recent films as if they were great shrines full of close-ups devoted to his grandiloquence and vanity, and by God, we had better approve or else suffer another media onslaught trying to persuade us to like him. As I wrote in my review of MI III, "One way or another, the man continues to get attention, and after awhile one even gets tired of hearing others say they are tired of Tom Cruise."
So, now having assumed the leadership of United Artists studios, Tom is the executive producer and star of Valkyrie, a World War II drama based on a true story about Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the Nazi who led a plot to kill Hitler with a bomb and then take over the government of Germany with the Valkyrie contingency plan. The film establishes at the outset what's at stake by quoting the oath all soldiers swore to Hitler--their unconditional obedience to Hitler, and their willingness to die for him no matter what. We first see Stauffenberg in Tunisia, South Africa, writing treasonous thoughts in his journal (which struck me as risky). He proclaims that Hitler must be stopped because by this point (towards the end of the war), Hitler is clearly the enemy of Germany due to the SS, the Gestapo, the concentration camps, and so on, so there's never any ambiguity about the heroism of the guy. Then planes attack the Germans, nearly killing the Colonel. As the camera dwells lovingly on the bullet-strafed and unconscious Colonel lying in the sand, I wondered how much Cruise enjoyed playing the martyr.
Once the Colonel (now missing an eye, a hand, and some fingers) returns to Berlin and starts to hatch his treasonous plan, I realized that the film is not as bad as MI III, mostly because Valkyrie does build to an effective bombing scene that generates suspense. But I've scarcely ever seen such a self-important erect piece of uber-masculine filmmaking. Even the poster has a tall erect red line rising over Tom's head. As if to make up for the lack of action, the music frequently punctuates scenes with kettle drums and bass. Doors slam, plane engines roar, teletype machines rattle, and soldiers snap into position with numbing frequency.
Tom surrounds himelf with high caliber actors, notably Kenneth Branagh (!?!), Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Terence Stamp, but they are all so well known, they continually threw me out of the picture. As also happened when I saw the star-studded The Day the Earth Stood Still, I kept thinking about the other recent films these men have appeared in. Wasn't Nighy a high level vampire? Didn't Stamp just embarrass himself by playing the baddie in Get Smart?
At any rate, the film moves with clockwork rigidity. General Fromm (Wilkinson) says he's happy that someone "with balls" (Cruise, naturally) has arrived at his office. Looking concerned, Stauffenberg tells his wife that "If I fail, they will come after you" and their cute blond children. More soldiers ride in jeeps or stand stiffly in formation as the Colonel says "Redeem yourself. Only God can judge us now." The film has its moments, but in all of its defensive stiff command, its utter inability to lighten up, it is still Tom's myth designed to counteract criticism and especially any mocking videos. All of the booming, crunching thunder of the film just wants to drum us into submission. In this respect, Valkyrie is yet another long, self-righteous, self-serving piece of Tom-promoting propaganda. Hitler would have been proud.