Valkyrie – a script review

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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.

The poster for Valkyrie

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.

Review

The script has a terrific opening, beginning with this radio broadcast.

HITLER (V.O.)

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.

The cast of Valkyrie

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.

OLBRICHT

We’ve already considered Valkyrie.
It isn’t suitable.

STAUFFENBERG

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.

Stauffenberg and Cruise

Some of the quotes are pretty sweet, and read well, but read the below and imagine it said by Tom Cruise.

STAUFFENBERG

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.

STAUFFENBERG (CONT’D)

Even if it means that I never see
them again.

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.

David Bamber plays Adolf Hitler

Summary

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.

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24 responses »

  1. Wow, diagrams?!
    Pretty awesome…and insightful.

    Did you feel, reading it, that the script was written with the tone originally being that it was more of an ensemble piece…or does the tone read that they originally made Cruise’s character the alpha male role? I’m wondering if maybe the broadening of that role came out of maybe having Cruise there…one thing I love about what Singer did with the Usual Suspects is that they chose Gabriel Byrne for the Keaton role in that movie. Put Willis or Cruise or someone in that, the movie would’ve been lopsided and would’ve suffered for it.
    Does it feel this was their intention from the beginning, or do you think maybe Cruise came in later and they punched it up, or…
    Usual Suspects handled numerous alpha roles quite well…so McQuarrie can absolutely do ensemble pieces…
    Would be interesting to see…if maybe this might have been better as a straight ensemble piece, with all actors sharing the movie equally….no one big star…
    What did it feel like while reading it?

  2. No, it feels like it was written with a leading man in mind (in the draft I read, anyway). The film could work as an ensemble piece after some heavy rewriting, absolutely, probably would have been a better (I’d have preferred it that way, anyway) if longer film, but I wonder if it would ever have got made.

  3. Good review. It sounds like MGM shot themselves in the foot by not positioning the film as a traditional thriller (rather than Awards bait) to begin with.

    In terms of the budget: does what’s on the page seem like it would cost 100 million?

  4. Hard to say. I could see how it could be made for 50, but I think a large amount of the money for this film has gone into making the sets and getting all those British actors, who are usually budget-friendly, as far as I’m aware, but there are so damn many of them. Plus there’s Tom Cruise and those high-profile people behind the camera.

    Ten years ago it would have been lunacy if it cost 100 million, but these days, I don’t know. It does seem a bit much.

  5. I received this script at the same time you did, but I still haven’t read it. I was hoping someone else would do the review and you have done so superbly! Guess I need to read it now…

  6. I have read the script too, and I have to say, its pretty sweet.

    CAN’T WAIT FOR THE MOVIE!!!

    P.S If anyone wants the script, post your email addresses and I will send them to ya :)

  7. Good review.
    The main problem, imo, with this movie seems to be the accents (all british, one american)
    And Cruise isn’t exactly popular these days, making the accent issue worse.
    but if its a good old school entertaining thriller then Cruise should be able to do it. Hopefully.

  8. Thanks!

    Considering there are some German actors in this as well, it will probably be a melange of Axis vs. Allied accents for and against eachother throughout the film. Great confusion, indeed.

  9. Wells reaction to the film is unenthusiastic. I was a bit wary of how the script would be filmed since it’s “never given that great, sweeping, epic push” and now Wells says that it felt like it’s “taking place inside an underground bunker. There’s something muffled and suppressed about it” and seems to mostly blame this on the “mildly drab cinematography”. Wells calls it “‘interesting’ as far as it goes” but he “can’t quite accept Cruise as von Stauffenberg” and all “the accents aren’t uniform — Cruise speaks like the right-wing U.S. Senator he played in Lions for Lambs, the British actors speak in their native British accents, the German-born Thomas Krentzman speaks German-accented English, etc.”

    Seems like Singer didn’t nail it and they didn’t do anything about the dialogue problem. Probably still worth seeing, but like I said before, it was never going to be a Best Picture contender.

    http://hollywood-elsewhere.com/2008/12/how_to_fix_it.php

  10. The commercial prospects for the film are what interests me. A 100M+ (per marketing!) Nazi movie starring Tom Cruise seems like a dicey prospect even WITH good reviews.

  11. If I remember, Wells was initially ga-ga over the script.
    Seems like a guarded review at best.
    And that was always my thing…three different accents on people who are supposed to be german?
    I’ve worked it over in my mind how Singer could have done it any differently besides using german and using subtitles…and there just doesn’t seem to be any way around the different accents without the words on the bottom…

  12. can u please send me the script i really need it for my enlish papaer its for my moral dlimma paprer i have to write

  13. This movie kind of got lost in the Holiday shuffle, but I was surprised to see that the domestic gross is hovering around the 80M mark. Not a mega-hit, but certainly a decent performance given the subject matter and star.

    Granted, they’re still about 170-200M away from break-even, but that’s another tale.

  14. Sorry, Vanessa, like I told the poster above, no can do.

    Besides, I don’t see why you need the screenplay to write the paper. The facts are readily available and the script does take its liberties with those. Recommend looking for books on the subject, like Hans Bernd Gisevius book Valkyrie, since he was a first-hand witness to the plot and the subsequent proceedings. A great deal of the script is based on Gisevius’ account.

  15. I saw the film and it was okay–nothing special, but as we like to say, it didn’t suck. It was a bit dry–not much emotion to it, and of course the outcome is not in doubt. I would have preferred to see a well-done documentary.

  16. Saw this last night, and despite some flaws (a few anachronistic moments here and there), thought it was quite a good film.

    Brian’s review from another thread summed up my thoughts on it. It’s never worse than adequate, but the period in the latter stages of when the coup is in action is highly compelling.

    Nick’s script review accurately details the strengths and weaknesses of the film; the opening 40 minutes or so are probably the weakest; watchable but not exactly riveting. And there was an excess of speechifying during this period, I’m guessing to make these central characters more noble than they actually were in reality (they’re hardly resistance fighters, after all).

    As well, the scenes showing how much of a devoted family man von Stauffenberg weren’t as mawkish as they could’ve been, but fairly by-the-numbers all the same. As Nick’s review outlines, the scenes where it diverted away from being a pure thriller were when it was as its weakest. But as a thriller it worked very well, backed up by professional directing.

    As for the accent issue, it did bother me somewhat in the opening scenes, especially the clash between Cruise’s accent and the Britishness of the rest of the cast. But from roughly the half hour mark I adjusted to it. As for Cruise’s performance, took a while to get used to and he had one or two weak moments, but overall a solid performance.

    Still, there was a lot to like about the film. I particularly liked how instead of it being the ‘perfect plan’ as is always the case in such coup/heist films, it was conveyed how this coup plot was slightly desperate, far from perfect and vulnerable to failure from the outset. Made it much more convincing and interesting than usual.

    Best performance in this fine cast was by Tom Wilkinson, almost as good as his performance in ‘Michael Clayton’. Also enjoyed Branagh, although his screen time was limited.

  17. I need this movie script for my study. Please anyone who knows where I can get it, inform me through my email tovics@gmail.com
    I will appreciate for any help, thanks

  18. I need the script also. Please send to me. I’m watching the movie with no captions. I am hard of hearing and want to know what is being said.

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