The first scene in Valkyrie has a Nazi colonel played by Tom Cruise sitting down to write in his diary: it is 1944, so it is obvious that the war is going badly and it is only a matter of time before the Nazis lose. The colonel tells himself that it is in Germany’s best interests to get rid of Hitler before the Allies do. Note that this colonel doesn’t want to oust Hitler for any of the reasons that Hitler is despised today; the concern isn’t that Hitler is insane, or a racist, or an anti-Semite, or a genocidal madman, or a fascist. No, the concern is that he’s bad for Germany.
Because this is a sane Nazi plotting to destroy a totally insane Nazi it’s an anti-hero fighting against a villain. By starting the story in 1944 and ignoring everything that this colonel did in the first decade of Nazi rule in Germany this movie wants to pretend that it’s the story of a hero out to destroy a monster. I’m not buying it. If Cruise succeeds in killing off Hitler then yes, he saves hundreds of thousands of lives by ending World War Two months earlier than it actually ended, but we also have a scenario where the Nazi party remains in power in Germany, which is an unacceptable outcome, because it could lead to millions more deaths later. The fact that Cruise’s character is a Nazi cannot be swept under the rug.
There are scenarios in which I can see this story being interesting. If the movie had been made in the 50s it would have made some cultural sense, because pointing out that not all Germans were totally unhinged monsters would have helped curb any anti-German prejudice leftover from the war. If it was made as a character study of a conflicted man – perhaps by someone like Paul Thomas Anderson, who is really willing to push how unsympathetic his lead is – then it could have been a fascinating study in shades of gray. I could see it working as a paranoid film about a man with blood on his hands who wants to make it right before he dies. But as a brightly lit thriller starring Tom Cruise as a man who loves his kids and wants to murder a monster so they will have a brighter future in their homeland? No. Not even close.
Winner: the cat