Bryan Singer's new thriller Valkyrie has a significant language problem: too many of them, thrown together with too little reason. Of course, it's traditional for movies set in foreign countries to feature the producer's native language, and in English-language films set in European countries, there's an equally robust tradition that most of the people speaking will have velvety upper-class British accents. And, yet, there's something about Valkyrie that calls attention to the artificiality of this conceit in the worst possible way, and it's not just that Tom Cruise plays a German military officer who sounds like he was just airlifted in from Smallville, USA.

It begins with the filmmakers' insistence on calling attention to the differences between the German and English languages right from the very first image of the film: the loyalty oath sworn by all military officers to Adolf Hitler appears in its original German form, which then sort of "phases" into English - then a card explaining the background setting of the film's story (there's a war on, and the Nazis are losing) does the same exact thing - then the title itself does it, transmuting from WalkΓΌre to Valkyrie before our very eyes. And when we hear speech, it plays with the audio version of that trick: Tom Cruise speaks some lines in German, which even I, with my German vocabulary of about 12 words,* can tell suffers from a pronounced American accent, which are subtly overlaid with Cruise speaking the same, subtitled lines in English. That's just in the first five minutes. As the movie plays out, every single document we see is written in German, although anyone reading them aloud speaks English. These are all tricks we've seen plenty of times before, of course, but they're absurdly distracting here; maybe because on top of everything, there's a disconnect in the character voices: every good German speaks with a theatrical British accent, while every bad Nazi (mostly played by native Germans) speaks with a German accent, while the protagonist, Cruise's Col. von Stauffenberg, sounds...Smallville, USA.

If, however, you can get past that, and it's not the easiest thing in the world to do, Singer and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander have put together a fine WWII conspiracy caper, deeply flawed in some respects but engaging for the most part and gripping when it needs to be. My theory about thrillers is that, no matter what else goes wrong, if you find yourself leaning forward anxiously waiting to see what happens next, it is ultimately a success; and since Valkyrie had me eagerly waiting to find out if a band of German politicians and military officers would succeed in their attempt to assassinate Hitler in the summer of 1944 (spoiler: they do not), I suppose that if nothing else, it makes for a crackerjack entertainment. Even Cruise contributes to the film's effectiveness: despite being one of the most terrifying and crazy men in Hollywood, he's still a good performer more often than not, and if in Valkyrie he's doing a star turn more than necessarily "acting", it's at least not a star turn that relies heavily on his famous charisma; his glowering, stone-faced take on von Stauffenberg is not what we'd expect from him, in a way that generally works to the film's advantage. The rest of the cast is filled out be reliable workhorses like Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, as well as on-again-off-again performers like Kenneth Branagh, who is himself as "on" as he's been since his best Shakespeare films.

The film tells the story of the 20 July Plot of 1944, in which von Stauffenberg, then Chief of Staff to the commander of the Replacement Army (functionally, something like the US National Guard, if I understand it aright), conspired along with several other men to exploit a contingency plan signed into law by Hitler himself called Operation Valkyrie, in which the Replacement Army would be mobilised to restore law and order in the event of a massive breakdown in the chain of command. The idea was that if an assassination attempt against Hitler was successful - and here again, von Stauffenberg was central, as his position required him to attend weekly briefings in Hitler's presence - Valkyrie could be used to quickly secure Berlin and from there all of Germany, before the Nazi SS was able to shore up the remains of Hitler's government. There's more to it, of course, but I'd be quite the asshole to explain more than that; that's the movie's job, or historians'. And it's quite an exciting plot, at that, full of questionable loyalities, split-second decisions, and deeply unfortunate coincidences that ultimately brought ruin to conspirators (not a spoiler, as Hitler didn't die in July, 1944, and if you didn't know that, you need more help than this mere blog can help you with).

Insofar as Valkyrie presents itself as a procedural thriller, following the nuts and bolts of how the conspirators made and executed their plans, it's brilliant. Far better, at any rate, than I'd have anticipated possible. Things fall apart because unfortunately, Singer and his collaborators have decided to present what ought to be an exciting story with frankly comic solemnity. There are good reasons for this, of course: turning the Nazis into a fun night at the movies has been a tricky proposition ever since 1946 or so, when the full truth of the Holocaust became well-known (there have been exceptions in the years since; recently, Black Book was a top-notch adventure film, but that was directed by a professional provacateur). And certainly, I can respect the Jewish director's unwillingness to back away from the essential seriousness of what was happening in Germany in 1944, even though the Holocaust itself appears only in a few ellipitical asides throughout Valkyrie.

But good taste and moral judgment only carry us so far. Singer is, after all, the man responsible for stranding perhaps the most ebullient of all comic book superheroes in the unrelentingly grim Superman Returns, and the joyless seriousness that hamstrung that film is on full display in Valkyrie. About half of the time, the movie features ambitious shots and bold staging that recalls the sensibility behind X2, still one of the best comic movies of all time, but the rest of the film is given over to low angles and overbearing shadows, imagery so self-consciously yearning to be iconic and somber that it verges on self-parody. Not helping out matters at all are the hushed sound design, and particularly John Ottman's hilariously dour score, quite probably the worst music written for a movie in all of 2008. It's not even that it's bad in and of itself, but as a soundtrack it is the very worst kind of emotionally manipulative, leading music you could imagine; even the tiniest smile is scared away by Ottman's stentorian drumbeats and miserabilist violins.

The result is that Valkyrie feels like a lecture, not a motion picture. We have a lesson to learn, goddammit, so don't you dare have any fun! That is what Singer is telling me. It's a pity, because the lesson is in fact quite enlightening, fulfilling not just the obvious purpose of reminding us all that there were Germans who weren't Nazis, who actively resisted Hitler's insanity, but also showing quite a lot about the kind of culture that would let a man like Hitler come to power in the first place. In an ideal world, this kind of thing would lend itself easily to the pulp treatment, and we'd be educated and entertained in equal measure. But nowadays, when World War II movies are basically a synonym for sober-minded awards bait, such potentially inappropriate blendings don't come by all that often. I'm rarely as angry about the urge towards prestige filmmaking as I am in this case: Valkyrie had a chance to be a really great picture before it got drowned by its on self-importance.


*Many of them art-theory jargon, like Verfremdungseffekt, Bertolt Brecht's "alienation effect"; something that causes the audience to a piece of art to attend more to its artificiality than what it is depicting. Like, for example, stressing how the on-screen language is fake.