Valkyrie (2008) -vs- The Usual Suspects (1994)

Beau DeMayoThe Smackdown

All kinds of films that want to be considered for an Oscar just got dumped in theaters in a post-Christmas frenzy. Some of them won’t even be out in wide-release for weeks but need to get even some limited screen-time in Los Angeles or New York to qualify. So we’ve been served up alleged Catholic molestations… men aging backwards… a dog’s life… and Nazis. In the last category, we’ve got Jews fighting Nazis in Russia, Nazis sleeping with teenage boys after the war, and — for the ultimate Smackdown — Nazis versus Nazis. That would be Bryan Singer’s newest film, Valkyrie, which explores the most ambitious and almost successful plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The film reunites Singer with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie from The Usual Suspects and lets him return to the dramatic genre where he started his career.  So today, we put Bryan Singer circa 1994 up against Bryan Singer circa 2008 and this showdown, unlike Valkyrie, is one whose ending is not known…

The Challenger

Valkyrie is a return to form in many ways for Singer.  The film explores the failed assassination plot on Adolf Hitler, one that came dangerously and surprisingly close to actually succeeding if not for a certain flukes.  Tom Cruise stars as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an injured German soldier completely and utterly fed up with Hitler’s ridiculous military ambitions.  Assembling a knock out class of some of Europe’s finest actors, Singer crafts a straight-up historical heist tale that somehow manages to elicit suspense and tension despite everyone knowing the ending.  The film, expertly shot and directed, is a true testament to the art of historical filmmaking and how the known can still be suspenseful.

The Defending Champion

The Usual Suspects marked Singer’s real true major directorial debut.  In this film, Singer again directs a star-studded cast (Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Spacey) in a non-linear heist movie whose biggest trick is the trick played on the audience.  In the film, Gabriel Byrne plays Dean Keaton, a former corrupt cop who is trying to make a legitimate living.  When he is wrongfully arrested, he joins with a group of other men to perform a series of heists that end in them being blackmailed by the mysterious and mythic criminal kingpin, Keyser Soze.  After this, well, just watch the movie.  The pacing of this film is sharp and tense and plays a delayed climax to perfection.  The cast combined with the neo-film noir feel make for a truly enjoyable, if somewhat deceitful, movie-going experience.

The Scorecard

Singer has changed a great deal as a director, and I only feel that his experience in larger pictures with superheroes has somewhat simplified his directorial outlook.  What I mean by this is that The Usual Suspects explores a group of men who are pulled back into a life of crime by the very presumption that they will always be criminals.  Dean Keaton is a conflicted character who is pulled back in both by his bitterness and by the eager pleas of Verbal Kent (Kevin Spacey).   The film is also a dual-layered film, with a major dramatic conflict for each layer.  On one layer is the present situation of Verbal Kent, who is being interrogated by Det. David Cujan concerning a harborside murder and explosion.  The conflict here is: can Verbal, who seems helpless and is built as helpless in the film’s secondary storyline, convince the overbearing and intimidating Cujan that he’s trying to do good and tell the truth.  The second layer is that of Dean Keaton’s struggle to rise above his criminal background and his eventual downfall in light of Keyser Soze.  Each storyline runs parallel, intercutting, each intercutting section adding more meaning and substance to the other storyline.  But what’s great is that the viewer gets two movies for the price of one: you get two sympathetic protagonists (the crippled Verbal and the repentant Keaton) and two great antagonists (the prideful Cujan and the sinister Soze).  And yet, by film’s end, all of these complex desires and elements line up and fall into place to form one singular cohesive cinema experience that actually INCLUDES the audience.

It’s a great advantage and a true testament to Singer’s directorial skills, and that of his oft-forgotten writer, McQuarrie.  But, in Valkyrie (and perhaps it is because we are dealing with Hitler after all) the characters are much more comic book right and wrong, good or bad.  Hitler is the personification of walking evil, with a group of sinister-looking henchmen all grouped together in a luxurious room like a Bond villain.  Stauffenberg is moral, steadfast, and determined without a real ounce of doubt or insecurity.

But let’s not underestimate Valkyrie.  The film’s strongest element is also that which worked so well in The Usual Suspects: this impending sense of overwhelming sinister dread.  In The Usual Suspects this is accomplished by having Verbal and Cujan’s storylines play out after the end result of Keaton and Soze’s so that in a way, we know that things end badly.  Valkyrie simply uses history to create this sense of dread: Hitler obviously did not die.  What adds to this is a unique and eclectic cast that depicts men with various goals and weaknesses in trying to kill Hitler.  Oddly enough, Cruise’s Stauffenberg is the least interesting character, for unlike Keaton or Verbal, he is so resolute in his determination to kill Hitler.  Sure, there is something admirable to his actions, but Singer never takes the time to explore him outside of just the catalyst character to these enormous events.  This does hurt the film.

However, Terrence Stamp, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson give us great characters with conflicted souls and flexible backbones who are stuck in a horrible hierarchy of terror and murder.  Singer does an expert job of diverting our attention from “will they succeed” toward questions of “who will betray who?” and “who can we trust?” and “where will it go wrong?”  In the film’s second half, this sense of dread and suspense is over-whelming and you will find yourself manipulated into hoping that these men can not only kill Hitler, but in fact retcon history.  There were even moments that I wanted the film to turn into a “what if…” because the tension and my desire to have these men succeed burned so badly.

Singer also exploits the sentimentality of World War II and The Holocaust.  Having a B.A. in History, I was disturbed by the seemingly overwhelming knowledge the main characters had of Hitler’s atrocities–since many of these atrocities were only later uncovered post-War.  This simplified many of their motivations when instead, their motivations could’ve been more ambiguous and doubtful– as they approach being with Stamp and Nighy’s characters.   What hurts is that the film rides on the least interesting character, Tom Cruise’s, and also the most flatly acted character.  And this is the film’s main flaw…you care only about the characters insofar as they want to kill Hitler.

Singer gives us tidbits of these men’s personal lives but never really explores them.  He never shows Cruise really angsting over the decision to betray his country and put his family at risk–which would’ve been an interesting character dilemma.  This, however, is left completely by the wayside.  But perhaps this is what Singer wanted, a central anchor character who instead grounds all the swirling chaos of the characters around him.  I will say the film succeed then on that front.  But in the final moments of the movie, if the intention there was to make me cry,
Singer did not lay the groundwork for that.

In terms of scores, The Usual Suspects has a better score oddly enough.  John Ottman has done some amazing work since this film and it was disappointing to see his style dip so low with Valkyrie, especially after having successful revised and competed with John William’s Superman score.

The cinematography in Valkyrie is far superior, both due to technology and experience, and there are some riveting and ambitious shots that truly absorb and hold you.

Something to note: Valkyrie really is admirable in that it shows that all of Germany wasn’t anti-Semitic murders.  It draws the often forgotten, but oh-so-important, line between the German army and the Nazi Party.  The film contains a message that needs to be heard more often.

The Decision

This one is actually quite simple.  Both these films are good films.  The Usual Suspects, however, simply has more meat for us to choke on.  All the characters in this film are conflicted and torn and interesting.  We root for them in different ways and for different reasons.  In Valkyrie, the fact that Singer skimps so much on Cruise’s character in a film where the ending is so well-known robs the film of some texture, makes it feel cold and somewhat academic.   Also, the plot twists and turns of The Usual Suspects are handled better, and remember in both films we know the ending for most of our characters.  Valkyrie may show honorable men doing honorable things, but that is not nearly as capitivating as watching dishonorable men struggle to do dishonorable things for honorable reasons.  The Usual Suspects burgles Valkyrie of its dramatic suspense and character development.

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