Valkyrie on Blu-ray disc
It isn't often that a World War II movie deals with German soldiers sympathetically, but that's what Valkyrie does, at least in its treatment of some German soldiers.
The film tells the story of a group of Germans, mostly soldiers, whose loyalty to their country and whose consciences will not allow them to let their homeland be destroyed by Hitler and the Nazis' war. It isn't that they don't want to fight, it's that they don't want to fight for a regime they consider to be particularly evil. Together they plot to kill Hitler and mount a coup to take over the government, then sue for peace.
Talk about going for the gusto! This starry-eyed "July 20th" plot (which happened, coincidentally, a quarter century before Man would first walk on the moon) was perhaps doomed to failure, but the conspirators thought it worth their while and "sacred honor".
This was apparently one of 15 attempts on Hitler's life!
The title comes from "Operation Valkyrie", which was an emergency plan developed in case there was a breakdown in civil order in Germany. Our conspirators re-wrote it to facilitate their plot – and one of the tense points of the movie is when Tom Cruise's character must get Hitler himself to sign off on the revised plan.
Our hero is Colonel Claus von Staufenberg, played very well by Cruise. Say what you will about Cruise off the screen, the man can act, and his performance here as an honored soldier and dedicated family man who must hide his hatred for Hitler and his regime lest it cost him everything for which he's been working is excellent.
It isn't only Cruise who turns in a terrific performance. Director Bryan Singer has assembled an excellent cast of veteran and journeyman performers, some of whom (Kenneth Branagh, for example) can carry a film on their own backs but who here fit into the ensemble beautifully. According to the supplementary material, the producers looked not only for good actors but for actors who also resembled their historical characters – a nice touch of realism that'll please students of history who are familiar with the events in this movie (though it's probably overkill for the rest of us who'd never heard of this plot before).
So besides Branagh we get Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy, Thomas Kretschmann and others – all of whom turn in believable performances in a film that, again according to the Blu-ray's supplementary materials, did its best to be faithful to the historical facts – even down to its locations and the overall tone of a few sane people mounting a mad plot in an insane time.
It may seem strange, since you know in your heart and your mind going in that their plot is doomed to failure (after all, Hitler lived for some nine months more and, as nearly everyone knows, died eventually by his own hand), but you find yourselves rooting for them and nearly hoping that the movie will end up throwing away historical fact and letting these guys win.
Fortunately, the producers didn't succumb to that kind of feel-good stuff and gave us a movie that ends heartbreakingly, yet defiantly – and left this reviewer with a better understanding of the time and the people (and which also, coincidentally, featured a scene near the beginning in which Berlin was being bombed at night by the Allied forces – a task in which my Bomber Command father could have taken part).
There's some violence, naturally, but it isn't outrageously graphic and it's never gratuitous – perhaps a bit more "realistic" than classic WWII movies of decades past but never in your face. This is a movie they could (and perhaps should) show in schools to provide some additional historical perspective considering most of our memories of those ages are of the horrors perpetrated by the Germans at that time; Valkyrie shatters the stereotype by showing us clearly that not all Germans – and not all German soldiers – were evil, mindless robots "only following orders".
An interesting take on the "Should the actors speak in German accents or use their own?" question is the movie starting in German, with Cruise doing a voice over that slips into English and then continues in English from there. It's a nice balancing act.
The Blu-ray is excellent. MGM has given the film a very nice 1080/24p presentation, at an aspect of 1.85:1 (which means on a proper 1080p TV it'll leave very small black bars above and below the picture) with a picture that's bright and colorful, with excellent contrast and which features that nice "depth" that's so rewarding on a good Blu-ray. It isn't the best example of the species, but it's very enjoyable.
The audio is dts HD Master Audio 5.1, and it is also excellent. The movie opens with a battle in North Africa, so you want good surround and excellent low frequency effects and this disc delivers. The rest of the movie is "front-centric" with surrounds used as required and it delivers as well. Audio overall is dynamic, clean, and crisp – you never lose dialogue in favor of explosions, etc., which is exactly how it should be.
The disc also comes with more than three hours of special features, including a commentary track with director Singer, star Cruise and co-writer/producer Christopher McQuarrie (all of whom appear to have taken their responsibility to tell the story accurately very seriously). There's also a commentary track by McQuarrie and co-writer Nathan Alexander.
There's also a series of featurettes:
They're pretty interesting looks at various aspects of the production and of the story, including one hosted by von Staufenberg's real life grandson, who takes us on a tour of the tale (and who also has a small part in the film).
I found particularly interesting "The African Front Sequence", which gives interesting insight into the non-digital (surprising, in this day and age) creation of the opening battle scene, while "Taking to the Air" looks at the vintage aircraft (again, real and not created digitally) they used in the filming.
MGM also throws in a second disc on which there's a digital copy of Valkyrie.
In all, a compelling and worthwhile presentation of a compelling and worthwhile story.
Valkyrie, from MGM Home Entertainment
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.