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Ride of the Valkyrie

December 25, 2008 By:
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Tom, you had me at "Heil."

Show me the Nazis, demands Tom Cruise, controlling the careening caper that is "Valkyrie," portraying Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the stealthy German soldier, whose assassination plot against Hitler hit some snags, in the film opening in theaters on Dec. 25.

The actual plot, coded "Valkyrie," may have plotzed, but Cruise creates a character as complex as he's ever attempted in a career of risky business paid off.

As the real-life colonel contemptible of the Führer and the furor that swept common sense aside in World War II Germany, not to mention made moribund any sense of morality, Cruise crafts a portrait of man as maverick, top gun in a regime of lethal backfires.

As the leader of an assassination attempt, the 15th and final of those failed and foiled against Hitler, by what can only be called the gangs that couldn't shoot straight, von Stauffenberg stiff-armed the image of all Germans as one-dimensional monsters, attempting to negate the Final Solution, replacing it with his own: Kill Hitler before he kills off a world that doesn't abide by the notion that the race is not to the swift but to the Aryan.

Hoping to toast their success -- and obliterate the Führer -- with an intoxicating bomb brewed from Cointreau, the conspirators were stymied repeatedly, refusing to table their conspiratorial ambitions until pulling off the big blast that nearly destroyed Hitler and derailed the deadly course he had dictated for the world hanging by a thread on its axis of evil.

Could the colonel accomplish what others had not, a coup born on the 20th of July? And could the actor, born on the third of July -- and Oscar-nominated for his role in a war movie of memories bearing the august title of "Born on the Fourth of July" -- pull off the role of his award-splashed career? From "Jerry Maguire" to Jerries malignant -- could Tom terrific claim the turf of such a tyrannical era and ride off with honor in "Valkyrie"? Could one of People mag's most beautiful people be able to urge the ugliness out of a people's black soul with a convincing portrayal?

All clad in black with a scintillating smile that breaks up the color scheme, he is oh-so-movie-star handsome with a hunk physique that fails to clothe the gentle soul inside.

Not that Cruise has not been out of control in the recent past, jumping from Oprah and her sofa to the lair of Matt Lauer with his gibes of glibness against the "Today Show" host.

But that is not today -- and Cruise, whose eye-patched German colonel has set his sights on upending the killing fields of Germany, has patched up his contretemps with co-host Lauer and reinvigorated his role as one of Hollywood's few good men to open a movie at a multimillion-dollar plateau.

He has his role of artful dodger down to a science -- there is no sign of the Scientology flare-up discussions that have flagged some recent appearances and interviews -- as he appears more Bambi than behemoth.

And it's all appropriate: Last year, Cruise captured the Bambi Award, deemed "the most important media award in Germany," for courage in committing to "Valkyrie," as well as the other brave new worlds he's inhabited on screen.

And it did take courage and, some would say, chutzpah, for the actor born 46 years ago as Thomas Cruise Mapother IV to assume the mantle of one of the few true heroes to emerge from Nazi-nefarious Germany. Indeed, shooting at Bendlerblock was blocked for a while by some who thought it unseemly that an actor espousing Scientology -- which is considered an uncool cult rather than religion in Germany (which should know about such things) -- be allowed access to a historic icon of German resistance.

That was then, this is now, where Cruise proves irresistible to fans amid the fury over the Führer-themed film. For his millions of followers, there is no movie mission impossible for the actor/producer/activist to pursue.

But is it possible Cruise has crafted more than tropical thunder in playing a man set against Germany's reign of terror? Could this be a rainmaker for the "Rain Man" star?

He scoffs -- good-naturedly -- at the notion that "Valkyrie" is a comeback. Even his war with the media -- and Paramount's Sumner Redstone -- could not prevent his rendition of "War of the Worlds" from moving the earth at the box office and taking in mega-millions.

It's that indestructible cocktail of talent, cut-out good looks and cute charisma that proves so damn intoxicating as he portrays a "nice" German, whom historian Annedore Leber described as "the prototype of those young higher officers who, though their own future careers were never in doubt, nevertheless had the will to take action. They acted from the officer's sense of responsibility to his troops, the citizen's responsibility to his people."

And Cruise senses his own responsibility to history, not histrionics, as he sits and talks about the German colonel whose kernel of decency and near triumph of his will almost halted Hitler's global path to perdition.

More than anything, says Cruise of the script, it was the thrill of it all. "I saw it as suspenseful, a great thriller," says Cruise of the Bryan Singer-directed and Christopher McQuarrie- and Nathan Alexander-co-scripted production.

An unusual wilkommen to the Weimar Republic? "When I first read the script and heard the story, I thought this couldn't be true," he says of the tale of the German colonel.

"But it's a great story, an important story."

The story on Cruise is how committed he is to educate without losing focus of the need to entertain. "I want to entertain the audience, but this came with a bonus. Bryan and I said that it was important to show that not everybody felt that way, that not everybody fell into the Nazi ideology," that it wasn't part of some terrifying teutonic DNA, and there were those, like von Stauffenberg -- still clear-eyed in his blue-eyed appraisal of the swastika swagger that proved staggering amid the narcissistic Nazi neanderthals -- who thought that humanity might subvert the "seig heil" siege mentality.

But even for the critically acclaimed Cruise, such knowledge was a "surprise."

After all, he relates with a broad smile bridging the years back to childhood, "I grew up wanting to kill Hitler." As a serious kid from Syracuse, Cruise couldn't figure out "why no one had shot him."

Though his shoot of "Valkyrie" came in finished as a two-hour film, Cruise concedes there was enough material to warrant so much more. "We could have made this 10 hours."

Not a minute goes by that he doesn't consider its relevance and importance, but, as Cruise concedes, at a time when multiplexes are filling up with films focusing on the complexity of the Holocaust, "this is not a Holocaust movie -- it is far from a Holocaust movie." He and cooler heads have conspired to make it what it advertises itself to be, and that, says the actor, "is a conspiracy thriller."

He should know -- "Top Gun" is no mere hired gun; he is one of the film's executive producers. And executing such a perplexing production meant being aware of history.

Adding dimension to his characterization, admits Cruise, was knowing that the man who would murder Hitler was also a family man "whose son was indoctrinated into Hitler Youth."

"As a parent realizing this" -- while portraying a prominent figure of the Fatherland -- he felt it even more urgent "to help bring a movie such as this to a broader audience."

He has taken broadsides aplenty -- as has Singer and the rest of the "Valkyrie" crew -- of Wagnerian proportions. Much has been written about the company's travails with the film, even before trailers were released. "Some things were written about this film ...," and Cruise trails off with a smile that says how willingly the critical medium "done" it in even before the film was finished.

"So many times I've been through this."

Was the film through? That seemed so much in the media's mind, as "Valkyrie" was first scheduled for release this year, then pushed back to next. But now, with the advent of some praise-filled screenings, the producers apprised the situation and scheduled it for a Christmas release as a gift that would please those in and out of Tinseltown.

"It's a great time for an audience to see this film."

But how real is the reel treatment von Stauffenberg receives here? "There is actual dialogue in the film taken from letters, journals ..." They teach as they entertain. But, then, Cruise's CV is complete with credits to real life, with his films serving as marathon history lessons, if all taken in toto.

And as a producer whose oeuvre is as overwhelming as that of his acting -- the "MI" films, "The Last Sumarai" -- Cruise tells how important it is "to try and balance art and commerce."

And here he is in character, juggling morals and conviction as von Stauffenberg stands up to the Nazi juggernaut and the jeremiad of pain that was the Holocaust. Yet, von Stauffenberg's strategy was strafed with danger: "He recognized early on that this [Hitler's Final Solution] was all insanity and that 'someone has to shoot the bastard.'

"And he realized that the only way to stop the war was from the inside."

And it takes a Hollywood insider to go outside himself to make it seem all so real. "We got to shoot where people died [in Berlin], making it powerful."

And one of the industry's most powerful performers -- cited as such by Edward Jay Epstein, whose "Hollywood Economist" column for the online Slate is in keeping with other professionals' appraisals -- lives up to his economiums with a shrug and a smile. "I grew up wanting an adventurous life -- sometimes it's too adventurous," kids Cruise with a stab at the knife-sharp tabloids which tag after him and his life with wife Katie Holmes and kids.

But "for a kid who grew up in the backyard wanting to kill Nazis," Cruise just may make a killing now, portraying the German officer, Claus von Stauffenberg, seeking the ultimate prey in his germane prayer for a peaceful world.  

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