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Mission Impossible

By John Murphy

Posted 12/29/08 at 1:23 PM

Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest was a novel about Hitler narrated by a demon, who writes: “Most well-educated people are ready to bridle at the notion of such an entity as the Devil…There need be no surprise, then, that the world has an impoverished understanding of Adolf Hitler’s personality.” I was reminded of that quote during Valkyrie, a true-story account of the most organized, wide-reaching conspiracy by German officers to assassinate their Fuhrer. As everyone knows, the plan failed. So did fourteen other attempts. At what point does one begin to suspect that dark forces were at work?

At the center of the plot is Colonel von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), a career military man, a devout Catholic, and a devout believer in the “sacred Germany” that Hitler’s atrocities are defiling. A more psychological character study might have been made about the Colonel’s crisis of conscience: a die-hard patriot from an aristocratic family does not turncoat lightly, I would imagine. But one has to imagine, since Valkyrie begins with von Stauffenberg’s mind already made-up, ready to take decisive action. So be it, since Cruise is much better suited to action than to introspection, but whatever part Stauffenberg’s faith played in his decision to eliminate Hitler is left for the viewer to interpret.

Where the film succeeds is in making clear and dramatic what was in fact a complex conspiracy with a huge number of players. It helps that Valkyrie boasts one of the year’s best ensembles (just for starters: Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard, Terence Stamp, and a brilliant David Bamber), all of whom deliver distinctive, colorful supporting turns. The supporting cast is key to the film’s success, since the plot pivots on small decisions made by seemingly unimportant pencil-pushers and low-ranking officers. Their motivations were practical more than ideological—they wanted to keep their jobs and/or their lives. It took men and women willing to sacrifice more than their careers to prove that Germany was not only the triumph of one evil man’s will— a man who had the devil on his side, if not inside.