Friday, January 2, 2009

Valkyrie (2008)


Bryan Singer has proven time and again to be a most artistically barren filmmaker. His films are hollow, grasping at lumpen cliches like so many tasty but unhealthful treats to be consumed at a party when no one else is looking. Unified by the boring caricature cartoon vision of the different oppressed by majority, his movies are so intellectually weak that Singer would be best served to continue plying his trade in a genre that may just suit his ostensibly perpetually arrested juvenilia, such as the colorless X-Men or amaranthine X-Men 2, the only memorable sequence out of which being an early shape-shifting attacker scampering and blasting through the corridors of the White House. Singer's movies tend to dissolve to the point of perhaps one scene within the gantry of the mind, like Kevin Spacey walking out with a smirk on his face in the final moments of The Usual Suspects or Ian McKellan almost hilariously marching around his kitchen in a Nazi suit in Apt Pupil.

It seems quite possible that Singer himself is coming to terms with this reality. Valkyrie, his newest picture, written by Usual Suspects scribe Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, clocks in at a comparatively brisk 120 minutes. It speaks volumes about the time in which Singer lives and works that a bloated, self-important movie about a stalker son-of-god Superman exceeds 150 minutes with state-of-the-art special effects while an episode out of actual history receives a made-for-TV movie production gloss with Hollywood mega-star Tom Cruise, playing Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, leading a cast of fine (mostly British) actors. It is this discipline, so uncharacteristic for Singer, that enables him to merely tell an intriguing, true story. With stultifying blandness. The film has something of a message, as it should, but McQuarrie and Alexander's screenplay is fast-moving and unconcerned with the humans at the center of their “thriller,” alacritously glancing against historical fact for the sake of cinematic suspense.

There is a reason Cruise has remained a star for as long as he has. He is simply a watchable presence, and despite the level of safety of many of his performances he tends to enliven certain material for which he is suited. Valkyrie, however, represents Cruise almost sedated. Gone is the edge that he uses in his better, more memorable outings. Even Mission: Impossible 3, which was a largely forgettable action movie, featured something that made it worth seeing once: Cruise's zany, vein-popping infusion of the components of his personal life into that character—madly, feverishly in love with a woman who happened to look fairly similar to real-life love Katie Holmes. Valkyrie is lacking in the personal—and personality, not only for Cruise but for almost all of the characters. A better screenplay could have supplied depth to the proceedings by simply fleshing the ensemble cast's characters out. McQuarrie and Alexander are more interested in where to place the time-of-day title cards. It is difficult to calculate how much talent has been wasted. Tom Wilkinson struggles to convey just how duplicitous and untrustworthy he is with his effort as General Friedrich Fromm; Kenneth Branagh is seemingly at a loss as to what to do in the under-written role of Major-General Henning von Tresckow; Billy Nighy actually has about as much fun as he can with his vaguely imperious General Friedrich Olbricht, squinting through his glasses with utmost seriousness and bearing; Terence Stamp gets by with that voice and those eyes as Ludwig Beck; Carice van Houten, who proved she is capable of so much more in Black Book, plays The Wife.

So, if Singer has proven to be incompetent in saying things with his films, here he opts to shut up. The results are equal parts pedestrian and boring, so slickly pieced together that the viewer knows the filmmakers are so safely treading water that there is no way in which the movie can be memorable. Wherever history is uglier and dirtier and messier than Singer and company would like it to be, it is excised. Imagine what a more empathetic screenplay and cerebral director could have pulled off with some of the confrontational moments between conspirators. Absent, for the most part, is anything resembling plausible verisimilitude, but for the bare skeletal framework of the conspiracy itself. Even the death of a major character is far less ugly and painful than it was in reality (hint—suicidal gun blast kills a man instantly, whose real-life death necessitated three bullets to the head, so sloppy he was in executing his self-destruction).

The historical richness of the Valkyrie operation and its origins are all lost on Singer. Named after Wagner's Gotterdammerung—“Handmaidens of the gods choosing who will live and who will die”—the very Germanic consciousness out of which Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg's plot emerged is never noted, nor is von Stauffenberg's Catholicism and noteworthy Teutonic lineage except in the barest and most unremarkable bits and pieces. Context is all but foreign to Singer's film. The furtive resistance group of Germans may as well be the X-Men plotting to block Magneto's latest scheme. How many reviews of the film have referred to von Stauffenberg and the men and women with whom he worked as Nazis? Singer cannot even provide an inconsiderably meager basic history lesson. No wonder the film appears to inspire little else but apathy and tedium in the case of most viewers—McQuarrie and Alexander's screenplay, and Singer's film, are so commiserably amiss in their mere bullet-point historical presentation, that professional film critics cannot be dissuaded of their instinctual revulsion of any German man in a military uniform. (German = Nazi.)

G.W. Pabst celebrated von Stauffenberg as a radical idealist and hero in It Happened on July 20th (1955). The characterization was a lionization, a sanctification. Pabst, however, assiduously emplaced the cultural memory that informed von Stauffenberg's actions. Singer bumps into it in his film's opening scene, in which von Stauffenberg relates in his diary the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis, which have left a hideous “stain on the honor of Germany.” Hitler's public adoration of the Cheruscan leader Arminius, whose defeating of the three Roman legions led by Varus, helped make him an immortal historic figure, finds great irony in von Stauffenberg's plan. Arminius was extolled by der Führer as “the first architect of our liberty.” Perhaps one could perceive von Stauffenberg as the Arminius to Hitler's Augustus. In Singer's film, Hitler states that “...one cannot understand National Socialism without understanding Wagner.” Wagner's diatonic pitches and chords provided great inspiration for der Führer. In these scarce moments, the screenplay touches on something dangerous, something true that burns beyond the obtuse sluggishness of the rest of the film. In the minds of evil lunatics the most beautiful phenomenons can be of great use. It is never helpful when an artist as brilliant as Wagner subscribed to terrible beliefs—which cannot be dismissed, especially when evaluating a man whose very mandate in his Gesamtkunstwerke (Total Works of Art) incorporates analysis of the drama for which his music was so amazingly created. Singer's film pivots around one simple statement by Cruise's von Stauffenberg: in serving his country he had betrayed his conscience. As a conscience-plagued Catholic German, perhaps von Stauffenberg would have been amused, or, rather horrified, to read der Führer's writing on conscience in Mein Kampf:

"It is true we Germans are barbarians; that is an honored title to us. I free humanity from the shackles of the soul; from the degrading suffering caused by the false vision called conscience and ethics. The Jews have inflicted two wounds on mankind: circumcision on its body and conscience on its soul. They are Jewish inventions. The war for the domination of the world is waged only between these two camps alone, the Germans and the Jews. Everything else is but deception."

14 comments:

tim watts said...

"McQuarrie and Alexander are more interested in where to place the time-of-day title cards."

For some reason that line of your review made me spit out my drink. You make this all sound so boring. I think I'll avoid it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ha. Sorry about that.

FilmDr said...

Nice job, Alexander. I especially like your discussion of some of the historical context the film leaves out. You never do touch on what I think is the best scene in the film--the bombing and its suspenseful build-up, and Singer does muster some pathos when the Colonel's coup starts to go awry.

While I mostly agree with what you wrote about Singer,The Usual Suspects is an excellent film. Too bad Singer didn't live up to the potential of that one.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the kind words, FilmDr. I agree with you about Singer mustering some pathos for von Stauffenberg when his coup starts to go awry.

I've never cared for The Usual Suspects, though I know it certainly has its adherents and fans. It's one of those wacky reviews of Roger Ebert's (made all the wackier by his usually passive love for almost everything these days) with which I agree. Actually, that is true of Fight Club and now, in a way, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, too.

Nevertheless, it is too bad Singer hasn't at least lived up to the unpredictable spark that that crime thriller admittedly had. His movies since then especially leave me cold. At least Valkyrie, strangely enough, wasn't as vociferous in its intentions as most of his pictures.

kyle said...

who is this Hitler guy anyway?

Alexander Coleman said...

Hollywood can't get enough of him, in any case.

Alison Flynn said...

Wow, you really hate Singer. :)

I had no interest in this film at any time.

Alexander Coleman said...

I honestly don't hate Singer. He just bores me. :)

At this point, I've given up on him. At least for now.

Thanks for stopping by, Alison.

Anonymous said...

Bryan Singer is a very average director.

Alexander Coleman said...

But, Anonymous, Bryan Singer and Ed Zwick have the courage to show us just how bad the Nazis were! (Sorry, I'm sure I'm borrowing that line from someone else.)

Sergei Smirnov said...

Great skewering of Singer. I find his movies unabashedly annoying in the extreme. I'm glad to see that you agree.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, again, Sergei. And I agree, his movies are annoying.

Moses Hernandez said...

Great review. I thought it was never terrible but it never was anything special. A story this special needed alot more.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Moses. I agree.