Finally got around to delivering something I don’t feel absolutely ashamed with (now, anyway). Sorry for the wait, guys.
A few words of caution before the review
It’s perhaps best to mention that I have never written a script review before this one. I have read a few, understand the form, but am by no means a voracious script reader. I have certainly never written one. So if I am missing some particular aspect of this screenplay that one knowledgeable in screenwriting would see, then I apologize. If so, hopefully someone in the comments will point it out for me.
There will be what some might term spoilers in the review, but only if you lack basic historical knowledge. If you are unaware that Hitler survived all assassination attempts and died in a bunker in Berlin in the last weeks of World War II, then you first need to rent Der Untergang, then retake high school. I hate spoilers as much as the next guy (unless it’s to save me from some particularly idiotic film), but some things you ought to just know.
What is interesting in the story about the July 20 plot is not just what went wrong, but the character of the people behind the assassinations attempt(s), their reasons and their fates. I won’t talk about those things, though there’s plenty of historical data about it available around the net if you’re interested.
Still, I’ve added a summary, so that people who just want the gist from some unprofessional blogger can get that quickly. Scroll down to the end for that.
Basic details on the screenplay
Written by Christoper McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Nathan Alexander (former assistant to Mr McQuarrie). Draft is 116 pages long, dated January 8, 2007.
The script has a terrific opening, beginning with this radio broadcast.
My comrades. Once again – I don’t know how many times it has been now – an attempt has been made on my life. I speak to you tonight for two reasons. First, so that you can hear my voice and know that I am unhurt. And second, so that you may know the details of a crime without parallel in German history…
Right from the beginning the script makes clear that the attempt on Hitler’s life met with failure. It then flashes back to 1943 and introduces us to Major-General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), standing by the side of a Russian airfield, waiting for Hitler to land, about to make another attempt on the Führer’s life.
These first ten minutes or so of the script are great. They show how Hitler had become a feared demi-god around this time, even around his own people and the atmosphere this bred in the corridors of even the highest command. Anyone could be dragged off to Gestapo and be shot for high treason.
McQuarrie has a style that makes for an easy and fun read. It’s quite cinematic already, pointers here and there. I don’t know how Bryan Singer will go about it, but the script is full of tense moments that I can’t wait to see how they’re handled. Sometimes they end in humor, sometimes in violence.
The plot can be divided into three acts; the set-up, the execution and the getaway. The set-up introduces us to the characters (click the picture below for a quick run-through. Sorry for my inexpert photoshop skills), mainly Colonel Stauffenberg and him joining the conspiracy.
They’ve assembled a hell of a cast, since aside from the ones pictured, we also have Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Fry, Thomas Kretschmann, Ian McNeice, Carice van Houten, Tom Hollander and Eddie Izzard. The occasional humor is quite dry and one of the best things about the film will likely be seeing all these awesome actors square off.
There’s all of them, and then there’s Tom Cruise. I’ve had my problems with Tom Cruise in the past, but I’ve also been a huge fan and this role actually reads like it was written for him. This could turn out to be both good and bad; good because it plays to his proven strengths, bad because it’s another alpha-male hero role.
Here Stauffenberg is given a more central role than he might actually have had. Operation Valkyrie was developed by General Olbricht (played by Bill Nighy), who is given somewhat short shrift here, being the one constantly warning of the dangers. Here the plan is suggested and basically forced forward by Stauffenberg.
We’ve already considered Valkyrie.
It isn’t suitable.
Not as it’s currently written.
Of course, I’m just going by Wikipedia. I’ve no doubt McQuarrie and Alexander have researched the hell out of the story and know what works better and why. Most of the things in the script appear to stick to what I’ve read of the historical record.
The above indirectly brings me to my main problem with the script, though. There’s a lot of declarations made by the characters. Big declarations. Speechifying to each other even, if you will. This too might be part of how they actually spoke at the time. These were men who believed themselves to be at the center of history, after all, and their actions could have an impact for generations to come afterwards (not that much of a presumption, really). “No one among us can complain about his death, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give up his life in defense of his convictions” is one actual quote by Major-General Henning von Tresckow.
Some of the quotes are pretty sweet, and read well, but read the below and imagine it said by Tom Cruise.
But my pregnant wife, our four
children, the Germany I first swore
to defend… They demand that I be
something different. They demand
that I fight for their future even
if it means…
And for a moment his voice breaks and he chokes back
what may be tears.
Even if it means that I never see
In that moment we see a side of Stauffenberg we were
starting to doubt existed. We see his humanity.
Like I said, this reads well but, and maybe it’s just me, I can see plenty of opportunity for awkwardness here. On the other hand, this is Bryan Singer’s responsibility, and I can also see Cruise hitting out of the park. Must say that seeing the trailer made me a bit wary, though.
After the first act, where the main players are introduced and the plan to assassinate Hitler is set in motion, the story gains a lot of speed. The script is at its best when it’s just a straightforward thriller. That half-hour or so after those first ten minutes, when the drama is set up and the characters introduced, is the slowest part and not the most intriguing, this despite a major battle scene being squeezed in there. This would be my guess as to why the studio didn’t go for the Academy Award qualification for the film this year. It’ll probably be a good thriller, but it’s not a great drama.
Which is too bad, really. The people behind the July 20 plot were fascinating people and deserve more exposition than they get here. Who knows how history would have looked if they had succeeded. And you can’t avoid the contemporary relevance of the story, where these men were willing to risk execution as traitors to get rid of a leader they saw was leading them towards disaster. But McQuarrie and Alexander have to choose between the film being more of a drama or a thriller, and they make the right choice, since as a thriller this succeeds admirably from the second hour onwards.
I enjoyed reading it. It’s more of a straightforward thriller than a drama, which would be the explanation I’d give for why they felt they could push up its release date to February 2009. While it’s very well made (it doesn’t deviate much from the historical record), with some some scenes that could turn out great, and an obviously relevant message today, it’s never given that great, sweeping, epic push. It’s characters are many – and it’ll be a joy to see some of the actors inhabit them – but their motives and thoughts are rarely discussed more than declaring “he must be stopped”. There are one or two scenes that try to give it some greater meaning, but they don’t feel like enough. This makes for a thriller that from its second hour onwards rarely stops in its tracks and will probably entertain once it’s out (particularly fans of historical thrillers), but not one likely to be nominated for Best Picture.
My main worry, though, is in some of the dialogue. There’s a lot of big declarations and “soundbite quotes” made by the characters, which sound good on the page, but might come off as too on-the-nose and obvious on screen. Many of these are made by Stauffenberg and Tom Cruise is, I’m sorry, not known for nuance.
Nonetheless, looking forward to seeing what Bryan Singer does with this. Should be a pretty good one.