These days, it is impossible to watch a Tom Cruise movie without thinking of what it might mean to the movie star himself. Two years ago, his Mission: Impossible character got married, around the time Cruise himself got hitched to Katie Holmes. Then, after his antics on Oprah's show and elsewhere got him in trouble with the media and with the powers that be at Paramount, forcing him to look for work elsewhere, he played a hotshot politician who criticizes a reporter to her face in Lions for Lambs and a foul-mouthed studio mogul who has zero sympathy for the people that work for him in Tropic Thunder. Now comes Valkyrie, the second film to be made by United Artists since Cruise took the reins at that struggling studio, and over the past year, thanks to constantly shifting release dates and rumors of reshoots, the film has acquired the reputation of a "troubled" production. It is tempting, then, to read an element of autobiography into the film, as Cruise plays a wounded German officer who is already unpopular with the Nazi high command when he joins in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler—a plot that we know is doomed to fail.
Cruise isn't the only one whose career has been stumbling lately, though. Valkyrie is also the first film that director Bryan Singer has made since his Superman movie came out two years ago and failed to live up to many people's expectations—and there is a sense in which Singer seems to be trying to get back to his roots, teaming up with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie for the first time since their Oscar-winning breakthrough The Usual Suspects came out thirteen years ago. Like that film, this new film (which McQuarrie co-wrote with Nathan Alexander) involves several men who collaborate on a conspiracy—but this time, instead of a heist, they plan to murder one of the most powerful men alive, and to take over the nation that he leads. And instead of being a patchwork of lies and half-truths that is eventually pulled from under the audience's feet, this story is all too true.
The film begins in North Africa, where Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) has been stationed, we gather, because he isn't one of Hitler's more enthusiastic officers. He is in the middle of discussing battle plans with a general—played by Bernard Hill, who asks "What would you have me do?" as though someone had handed him the script for The Lord of the Rings by mistake and asked him to play Theoden again—when Allied planes attack and leave Stauffenberg so wounded that, by the time he emerges from the hospital, he has lost an eye, a hand, and three fingers on the hand that remains. So he returns to Berlin and gets a desk job, where he worms his way into the upper ranks while plotting with his friends to bring the Fuhrer down.
It turns out that Stauffenberg's friends have already tried on several occasions to assassinate Hitler, but their efforts have come to naught. And while these episodes have no doubt been massaged to produce as much cinematic tension as possible, much of what the film shows is true to life, at least in the basics, such as when Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) plants a bomb on Hitler's plane that fails to go off. When Stauffenberg joins Tresckow's group, however, he insists that they change their approach. It will not be enough to simply kill the Fuhrer, he says, since one of the equally loathsome members of Hitler's inner circle will take over for him and keep running the country into the ground. Instead, the conspirators must figure out a way to seize control of the country itself, the moment Hitler has been killed.