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That rapport took hold early on in the Valkyrie development process, when Cruise and Singer would meet for up to 12 hours at a time, to discuss the movie at hand, of course, but just as often to talk about and even watch old movies they both love — to, as Cruise puts it, “film-geek out.” For Singer, whose best-known films (including The Usual Suspects and X-Men) have been ensemble pictures cast with a mix of veteran character actors and rising young talent, those marathon rap sessions also helped to take the edge off his apprehension about working with his first billion-dollar movie star.
“From the start, it was very comfortable,” Singer says. “Here was a person giving me complete trust and respect as an actor, and I know that he’s just worked with Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg and Michael Mann — the list goes on. That immediately put me at ease. And ultimately, Tom brings out the best in you.”
“And I think that’s the way you directed me, right from the beginning, with your ideas on the character and the exploration of the character, your generosity as a filmmaker,” Cruise interjects. “When we’re making a movie, I’m an actor. I love acting and I want to be directed. I don’t want to direct myself. And Bryan has an uncanny thing — he knows when it’s right. He knows when things are there.”
By way of example, Cruise singles out one tense scene in which Stauffenberg, having just returned to Berlin after detonating the bomb, phones Olbricht only to learn of the kinks that have already developed in their can’t-miss plan. “So here we were, working on this scene,” says Cruise. “We tried it a bunch of different ways, and this one time Bryan came in and said, ‘Now, after that line, I want you to hold the phone down. Just say the line and then hold the phone down.’ And I knew exactly that that behavior was perfect. That’s the kind of thing — together, you know we’re going to figure it out. It might seem like a little thing, but that moment — that’s Stauffenberg. That’s someone who’s right there at the edge about to lose control and realizes ... he just puts that phone down to gather himself under such tremendous stress. The character was built around these very specific moments.”
The result is a solid performance in exactly the type of role that has long been Cruise’s strong suit: a man of means and determination who, even when thwarted by circumstance (or forced, as in Rain Man, Magnolia and Jerry Maguire, to confront his own shallowness), reliably emerges better, stronger and even more focused than he was before. It’s the archetypical hero’s journey as canonized by Joseph Campbell, and Cruise was born to play it, even if it’s debatable whether or not he was born to play a German officer.
Indeed, Stauffenberg is only Cruise’s third character of foreign extraction, and the previous two (the French bloodsucker Lestat in Interview With the Vampire and the Irish farmer Joseph Donnelly in Far and Away) were emigrés to the New World. And it’s on this count that some critics, even before seeing Valkyrie, had already sharpened their knives. That Cruise doesn’t attempt a German accent as Stauffenberg has been blogger catnip for more than a year now, although it’s only really news if you’ve never seen Frank Borzage’s very fine rise-of-the-Nazis melodrama The Mortal Storm (starring the Pennsylvania-accented Jimmy Stewart as an Austrian farmer), Michael Curtiz’s Passage to Marseille (with Humphrey Bogart speaking in his regular rasp as a French journalist opposed to the Vichy regime) or, for that matter, Out of Africa (which offered up Robert Redford as the British Denys Finch Hatton).
In other words, Hollywood actors have been passing as foreigners sans proper accent virtually since the start of talking pictures — especially those stars like Stewart, Bogart, Redford and Cruise whose very appeal is linked to a certain innate, inimitable American-ness. These aren’t character actors who chameleonically disappear under the skin of each new role. (You want that, you call Johnny Depp, or Laurence Olivier.) Rather, these are stars for whom some part of their iconic personae always remains visible on the surface, and in their best roles only intensifies (rather than weakens) the power of the performance. As former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock wisely noted upon the casting of Cruise to play Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, “It’s not only Ron who goes through this wrenching story, it is Tom Cruise — our perception of Tom Cruise.”
Valkyrie was shot, whenever possible, on the locations where the events depicted actually occurred, with historian Peter Hoffmann on hand as an adviser. But for all the film’s scrupulous attention to detail, Cruise and Singer insist that they intended Valkyrie first and foremost as a thriller, and they’re right to do so. Anyone coming to the film expecting a probing inquiry into the conflicting ethics and philosophies of Hitler’s Germany, or even an irreverent romp on the order of Paul Verhoeven’s Dutch resistance tale, Blackbook (from which Valkyrie borrows several actors), will perhaps be disappointed by this modestly scaled, unironic (and, above all, unpretentious) wartime thriller about good Germans and bad Nazis. By the same token, those who fondly remember watching just such movies on TV while sitting upon their father’s knee are likely to be delighted. Think of it as an object lesson in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous definition of movie suspense as showing the audience a ticking time bomb under a table. Only Valkyrie is that rare ticking-bomb movie that gets more suspenseful after things blow up.
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