Valkyrie, Milk

Film reviews for 12.2: Tom Cruise plots to kill Hitler in Bryan Singer's WWII thriller, Sean Penn portrays gay official Harvey Milk in the Oscar-nommed biopic

Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Kevin McNally, Christian Berkel, Andy Gatjen, Jamie Parker, David Bamber, Tom Hollander, David Schofield. Written by Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander.

A compelling if inauthentic World War II thriller, Bryan Singer´s Valkyrie is suspenseful and exciting and works well enough on popcorn terms to warrant a recommendation even if it doesn´t always feel just right. It involves the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler, the last of many, the film tells us. We all know what happens, right? The plan fails. But Valkyrie doesn´t play out as a tragedy, which is what you might expect; no, despite the audience knowing the ultimate outcome, Singer presents more or less a straightforward thriller, and when it works, it really works. There´s one truly great scene here – the actual assassination attempt – which would have made Hitchcock proud.

Tom Cruise stars as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who has already become disenfranchised with the Nazi movement before he loses an eye and an arm in Tunisia. After he regains health back in Berlin, he´s introduced to a small circle of men who think along the same lines he does by friend Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh, whose role here is disappointingly small), who has just failed to kill Hitler with a bomb hidden in a cognac bottle that didn´t go off. At first, von Stauffenberg is reluctant to join their ranks, feeling they may be able to kill the Fuhrer but won´t be able to take control of the country after that. Then he´s inspired, and while hiding with his family in the basement as bombs go off around them and Wagner´s Die Walküre skips around on the phonograph upstairs, he devises an intricate plan.

Key to this plan is Operation Valkyrie, which involves the mobilization of the reserve army in case of a national emergency. The conspirators plan to rewrite the plan, kill Hitler, and use his own army to arrest SS officers and seize control of the country. This involves von Stauffenberg himself delivering the bomb to Hitler´s bunker the Wolf´s Lair, and then flying back to Berlin hours later to play politician. In his way is General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), leader of the reserve army and the only one who can initiate Valkyrie. The plan doesn´t work, of course, but it´s fascinating to watch how things go wrong.

There´s a lot going on in the film – and a lot of characters to keep track of – but Singer does an excellent job of keeping things under control. Valkyrie is an extremely mannered film, not afraid to take its time to carefully explain all necessary details, and it´s Singer´s best work since The Usual Suspects.

Now, these characters are German, and should be speaking German, though we can´t expect that here; a nifty little transition – Cruise´s opening narration begins in German before fading into English – helps make the language more palatable. But in your average film of this type, the stars would be speaking with a variety of German (or otherwise) accents and while we´d be complaining about the quality of those accents (see Harrison Ford in K-19: The Widowmaker or a seemingly infinite number of other examples) at least it would be consistent within the context of the film. In Valkyrie, Cruise speaks in his usual, familiar voice, and the mostly British supporting cast speaks with British accents. Then there´s a major character played by German actor Christian Berkel who speaks with a heavy German accent, along with heavy German accents in smaller roles. The lack of any kind of consistency is distracting throughout, despite screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie´s claims otherwise, and my one real gripe here. The accents from German actor Thomas Kretschmann and Dutch actress Carice van Houten here are discreetly and indistinctly ‘foreign´ and should have been employed by the rest of the cast if possible.

It´s also strange to hear the characters say “my Fuhrer” instead of “mein Fuhrer”, but at least they leave “Heil Hitler” alone. All written communication is in German, too. I´m not saying any of this is right or wrong (certainly, if Hollywood found the correct solution to the accent situation they´d be employing it by now), but these small things took me out of the movie.

The same story has been told a number of times before, notably in the 2004 German TV movie Stauffenberg, which starred Sebastian Koch as the title character, and in the 1990 US TV movie The Plot to Kill Hitler, which starred Brad Davis as Stauffenberg.




Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O’Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel, Brandon Boyce, Howard Rosenman, Kelvin Yu, Jeff Koons. Written by Dustin Lance Black.

Milk, a look at San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to office in the United States, certainly isn´t sour though I found it strangely underwhelming. Gus Van Sant´s expected artistic flair elevates the picture above the realm of your usual Hollywood biopic, and is likely the director´s finest mainstream effort; still, we´re a long way from Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. Dustin Lance Black´s screenplay feels paint-by-numbers, and ‘usual Hollywood biopic´ material is too often what we get; Rob Epstein´s 1984 Oscar-winning doc The Times of Harvey Milk is a much more concise and effective  version of precisely the same story.

Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, who begins the film by picking up future partner Scott Smith (James Franco) in a San Francisco subway in 1972; Milk is closeted homosexual who fears he may lose his job if he´s discovered. “I think you need a new scene, and new friends,” Smith tells him on his 40th birthday, and so Harvey finds it, and them, by opening a small camera shop in an Irish-Catholic section of the city that becomes a beacon for the local gay community. Fully out of the closet, he initially clashes with shopowners but wins the support of local labor unions by rallying the community in a successful boycott of Coors beer. Dubbed ‘The Mayor of Castro Street´, he decides to run for city supervisor in 1973. He loses, runs again, and keeps on running till he finally wins in ´77, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the US.

The second half of Milk focuses mostly on the brief tenure as city supervisor, as he clashes with fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), who won his seat with a campaign of eliminating ‘social deviants´ from his neighborhood. At the same time, Milk is also key member of the fledgling gay rights movement in the US, and he rallied the local gay community against Anita Bryant, who successfully lobbied for the repeal of a ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in Dade County, Florida. Closer to home, California State Senator John Briggs attempts to pass Proposition 6, which would make firing homosexual teachers mandatory in the state (coincidentally, Milk was released in the US around the time of the Proposition 8 ballot in California, which was passed in November, restricting the definition of marriage in the state constitution to opposite-sex couples and causing outrage among the state´s liberal population. How times have changed.)

If you´re familiar with Milk´s story, you know what comes next. Even if you´re not, the film opens with TV footage of Dianne Feinstein announcing to the press that “both Mayor [George] Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.”

Penn has been nominated for Best Actor and just might win; he´s strong and empathetic here, though never quite convincing as Milk, with come-and-go effeminate mannerisms that often feel forced. His scenes with Diego Luna are particularly…awkward. Supporting cast seems to fare better, with particularly convincing and memorable turns by Emile Hirsch and James Franco, along with Josh Brolin as the confused White. Denis O’Hare steals his scenes as Senator Briggs in the film´s best sequence: a pair of public debates between Briggs and Milk, the first in front of a liberal crowd, the second in front of a much more conservative one.

We learn very little about these people, however, most notably Milk himself, as the film confines itself to his life after 40; it´s a rather glossy look at the man that doesn´t provide the depth of Epstein´s documentary. While Van Sant´s visual flourishes, like a hallway tracking shot following Milk´s killer that feels ripped from the director´s Elephant, add up to a more memorable piece than we might have had under a different director, some of them feel out of place.


Also: this week’s other wide release is director Marie Poledňáková’s comedy Líbáš jako bůh (showtimes), which is screening in Czech without subtitles.

And: This year’s Oscars will be broadcast next Sunday, February 22nd, but you can catch a free screening of last year’s winner, No Country for Old Men, Thursday the 19th at the US Embassy’s American Center. Before the film, journalist Vojtěch Rynda will give some predictions for this year´s awards.

Lastly: don’t miss out on this year’s Shockproof Film Festival, which presents a selection of graphic, gruesome, or otherwise disturbing films at Prague’s Kino Aero till the 15th, and in Brno from 22nd to the 24th.

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