December 26, 2008 in Features

Risky Mission

Tom Cruise attempts to revitalize a once-vibrant career with Nazi-centric movie about Hitler resistance
Associated Press
Associated Press photos photo

In this image released by MGM, Tom Cruise portrays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg in “Valkyrie.” Associated Press photos
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Critics’ take

What the reviewers are saying about “Valkyrie”:

“Those with knives sharpened for Tom Cruise, anticipating a terrible movie in ‘Valkyrie’ by virtue of moving-target release dates and bad buzz, will be disappointed. … Though it’s not a great film, ‘Valkyrie’ does an effective job of telling a chapter of history, low expectations notwithstanding.” – Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic

“Big star. Big story. Big budget. Yet ‘Valkyrie’ has all the dramatic oomph of a History Channel re-enactment.” – Robert W. Butler, The Kansas City Star

“The idea of Tom Cruise wearing an eye patch and a Nazi costume sounds like someone’s idea of a bad Halloween party joke. But one of the many surprises of the new thriller ‘Valkyrie’ is that it allows the actor, whose off-screen persona tends to overshadow his on-screen efforts, to disappear a bit inside the kind of old-fashioned theatrical get-up that Laurence Olivier might have exploited to the hilt.” – Christopher Kelly, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Turns out Cruise is both the central figure in ‘Valkyrie’ and its weakest link. He’s distractingly bad in this, the iconography of his celebrity so strongly overshadowing his performance. … With his hard, flat American accent, he stands out in every single scene. And he’s not a good enough actor to immerse himself in this kind of period piece, or allow us to do the same.” – Christy Lemire, Associated Press

A Nazi-filled Christmas is not an easy sell.

That’s just one of the challenges Tom Cruise faces with his new World War II thriller “Valkyrie,” which opened Thursday.

In the film, which portrays the seldom-recalled German resistance to Adolf Hitler, Cruise plays would-be Hitler assassin Col. Claus von Stauffenberg.

It’s a risky movie to make, and not just because of the sensitive subject matter. Cruise has been trying to rehabilitate his image – and few PR experts regularly advise donning a German army uniform to engender warm feelings.

On the other hand, “Valkyrie” is also a serious, suspenseful film. Can it help put Cruise back on top?

In a recent interview, Cruise and director Bryan Singer downplayed the movie’s bad pre-release buzz.

The release date repeatedly changed. Early ads showing the similar appearance of an eye-patched Cruise and Stauffenberg were mocked online.

At one point, German Defense Ministry officials said the production couldn’t shoot at Berlin’s Benderblock memorial to the Nazi resistance because of Cruise’s beliefs in Scientology – which isn’t recognized as a religion in Germany. (The statements were quickly recanted and shooting went forward.)

Cruise, 46, is familiar with uncontrollable spirals of bad publicity – and not just in the last few tumultuous years. He has long been dogged by rumors about his personal life and has been through productions (like 1988’s “Rain Man,” he points out) that seemed doomed before they were released.

“It’s nice to be able to have people talk about the film, as opposed to us reading about the film,” Cruise said. “It is what it is. And I understand it. I do understand it.”

His recent bout of bad publicity started with that fateful appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 2005, where he proclaimed his love for now-wife Katie Holmes while hopping on a couch.

Then there was the awkward interview with “Today” show host Matt Lauer about psychiatry, which Scientology opposes. The following year, Paramount Pictures severed its 14-year relationship with Cruise.

“As I’ve said, I want an adventurous life,” he said. “And yet I’ve gotten a little bit more adventure than I bargained for.”

A rebound is fully in the works. Cruise revisited Winfrey earlier this year. Last week, he publicly patched things up with Lauer.

And he received a Golden Globe nomination for his hilarious performance in Ben Stiller’s raunchy summer comedy “Tropic Thunder,” in which he plays a dirty-dancing, foul-mouthed studio head.

With producer Paula Wagner, Cruise re-formed the United Artists film studio as a boutique label for MGM. Their first film for UA, last year’s “Lions for Lambs,” was a critical and box-office failure and Wagner exited as chief executive officer in August.

The more expensive “Valkyrie” – reportedly made for $90 million, though Singer said $75 million is more accurate – is a considerable gamble for both UA and Cruise.

He jokes at the predicament: “Go kill Hitler on Christmas!”

There were many plots to assassinate Hitler, but the one involving Stauffenberg and many other high-ranking German officers is well-known in Germany.

On July 20, 1944 (six weeks after D-Day), Stauffenberg conspired to kill Hitler with a bomb and install a change-of-power scheme called Operation Valkyrie. The plot failed (Hitler would kill himself in April 1945) and about 200 people were executed for their involvement.

The film was written by Christopher McQuarrie and his writing partner Nathan Alexander. McQuarrie’s last collaboration with Singer was the widely admired “The Usual Suspects” (1994).

After he brought “Valkyrie” to Singer, they expected to make a “small” film for less than $20 million.

“I love it when he says that,” jokes Cruise. “I laugh at him. All you have to do is read the script. It has the planes, it’s in Berlin. How is this ever a small film?”

Now embracing his instinct for big movies, Singer (who also helmed “X-Men,” “X2” and “Superman Returns”) said, “You sell the small film and then you go: ‘We could have cardboard or we could have the metal. I’m just saying.’ It is a bit of a shell game.”

McQuarrie is quick to acknowledge he never expected the film to get made, but believes the result is a “delightfully odd movie” in the tradition of taut World War II thrillers like “The Great Escape,” “The Devil’s Brigade” and “Where Eagles Dare.”

“We always knew that it was a thriller, we always knew that it was for the mainstream,” said Singer. “It was not something we were gunning for awards.”

Reviews for “Valkyrie” have been mixed. Variety said its commercial prospects are “so-so.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “a fine film” that “should enjoy modest success, but if Cruise’s career is seen as momentarily stalled, ‘Valkyrie’ is not the electric jolt he’s looking for as a jump-start.”

Cruise’s Stauffenberg is, like many of the actor’s roles, an embodiment of determination. With a similar steadfastness to Ethan Hunt of the “Mission: Impossible” movies, the striving agent in “Jerry Maguire” or the more demented determination of Vincent in “Collateral,” the character is resolute.

“I think there is that part of me, there is that spirit of wanting to engage in life,” Cruise said.

“Here’s a guy who worked under tremendous amounts of pressure, and still could be absolutely clear and lucid about his choices and try to push this and drive this forward.”

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