If you were secretly (or not so secretly) hoping that the WWII thriller Valkyrie would be a train wreck -- with Tom Cruise manically steering the locomotive toward its fiery demise by playing Nazi saboteur Claus von Stauffenberg like he's starring in "Top Gun Part II: Maverick Mutiny" -- you might be disappointed. History buffs and World War II fans probably never put Cruise on the shortlist of actors to play the loyal German soldier-turned-righteous traitor, who became a key player in the most nearly successful attempt to assassinate Hitler and overthrow his government. But the notorious action star keeps his bombastic persona remarkably reeled in, and the resulting film is earnest, somber, and extremely modest -- almost to a fault.
Indeed, that modesty can let things occasionally get just a little bit dry, but for the most part, director Bryan Singer seems to appreciate the magnitude of the very true story that the film is based on. It opens on Stauffenberg, a colonel in the German army, surviving an Allied bombing in Tunisia, where he loses his left eye, as well as his right hand and three fingers from his left. This is the last straw for Stauffenberg, who's doubted the twisted ideals of the Reich for some time. He discreetly joins up with the German Resistance -- a cabal of high-ranking military and government bigwigs who meet in dark, smoky rooms full of expensive-looking furniture -- and enters the whispered debate over what, if anything, can be done to save their nation.
The problem is that even if Hitler were dead, there would be a cabinet full of crazies standing in line to take his place, and even if the cabinet were eliminated, there would still be legions of loyal Nazi soldiers goose-stepping all over Berlin. This impasse leaves the gray old men of the Resistance in a perpetual state of ineffective squabbling, but of course, Stauffenberg is a man of action -- hence, the casting of Tom Cruise. And it really works: for all the character's noble, self-sacrificing heroism, Cruise never gets hammy or indulgent; there are no ridiculously badass one-liners (those in the original trailer were cut), no Oscar-bait hysterics or vain looking-into-the-distance-with-a-single-tear-in-his-eye. You don't even get that vague, distracting sense of megalomania emanating from his usually self-satisfied grin. The only incongruous element to Cruise's presence is the fact that literally every other member of the cast speaks in either a British or obliquely European accent -- the general rule for American movies that take place where English isn't the native language. But Cruise talks in that same Midwestern American Newscaster With a Slight Head Cold dialect he always does. And it's incredibly perplexing, at least in the first few scenes, before he becomes the center of the dialogue, at which point your brain gives up the fight and just accepts it.
Other members of the cast, like Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, and Bill Nighy, turn in solid, stately performances as well, and many of the supporting actors stand out despite being crammed in with about a million other ensemble players, each one aging and understated, and each one donning a neatly pressed suit or uniform. But of course, that's all mostly there to illustrate how the (comparatively) young, virile colonel is set apart by his willingness to act. He masterminds a plan for the Resistance to seize power from the inside, through the use of Hitler's own contingency plan in the event of catastrophe -- a policy known as Valkyrie. The plan states that if a disaster such as the Führer's death disrupts the chain of command, the Reserve wing of the army is to take control of the situation. So, if Stauffenberg's crew can assassinate Hitler, and then convince the military that the Secret Police perpetrated the attack in a coup against the government, Operation Valkyrie will go into effect, and the Reserves will deploy to contain the threat -- in this case, the apparently treasonous Secret Police and most of the party's top brass. Meanwhile, with the country's own armies unknowingly providing all the brute force, the Resistance can set up a new, non-Nazi government and draw up a truce with the Allies.
The 20-odd main characters involved in planning, preventing, or otherwise turning a blind eye to this conspiracy can get to be a bit much, and there are occasional moments of "What are they talking about? Who is that? Which side is he on?" But for the most part, the events stay coherent, and increasingly intense. In the end, it's probably better that Singer conceded a few imperfections in the narrative in the name of keeping things accurate -- this is, after all, a story that might seem impossible if it weren't true. He also does a great job of ratcheting up the suspense, as every step in Operation Valkyrie brings new questions of which comrades can be trusted, whether the plan has been discovered, and how to arm archaic, old-fashioned bombs that look like steam-powered pencil sharpeners. In fact, things in the film stay so tightly wound, you might just forget about the fact that this is history, and we already know how the story ends.