Mission impossible

Tom Cruise turns Hitler's would-be hit man into almost likable guy.

Tom Cruise 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tom Cruise 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Hollywood A-list director Bryan Singer, casting fellow A-lister Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in the new World War II Nazi thriller Valkyrie was a decision he could make with his eyes wide shut. "Tom was ideal for this role. Von Stauffenberg possessed a unique, charismatic character - a rising military star being groomed for the high command," said the 43-year-old Singer, referring to the German officer behind a 1944 plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. "And, just as importantly, Tom looks like von Stauffenberg," added Singer, speaking from Hawaii where he was vacationing ahead of a promotional tour coinciding with the European debut of Valkyrie, which also stars Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Tom Wilkinson and Jamie Parker. "I showed Tom the cover of one of the books written about him, and he saw the resemblance and was astonished. He read the script and kept asking 'Is this true? Did it really go down like this?' And he immediately agreed to do it." Authenticity was a crucial point for both Cruise and Singer, who already has a box office-friendly list of successful films to his credit, including the cult classic The Usual Suspects, the first two X-Men films and Superman Returns. And a top Hollywood script doctor couldn't have come up with a more edge-of-your-seat plot than Operation Valkyrie - named after the Wagner opera - the failed assassination attempt which involved some 200 high-ranking German army officers and civilians who had reached the conclusion that Hitler was destroying Germany and had to be eliminated. While the sight of Cruise in full Nazi regalia sporting a black eye patch may have been more monologue fodder for American late-night talk show hosts and gossip Web sites already used to the icon's colorful couch-jumping, Scientology-related ways, some of the reviews of the film, which opened in the US in December and opens locally on Thursday, have stated that it's Cruise's personality which injects von Stauffenberg's character with life. The Associated Press dismissed the project, writing: "[Cruise is] distractingly bad. The iconography of his celebrity so strongly overshadowing his performance," but reviews in The Washington Post held otherwise. "Even Cruise, whom many doubted could carry off the aristocratic elan of the blue-blooded von Stauffenberg, manages his part respectably, with a combination of ramrod posture, starched costumes and minimalist acting," effused the Post, while the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The fact that the colonel was likely the most charismatic man in any room, eye patch or not, is something the actor has been able to connect to." THOSE REVIEWS confirmed to Singer that his instincts about Cruise were right. "I had been thinking of working with Tom for a long time. We met at the first Mission Impossible premiere, and he was a fan of The Usual Suspects, so we tossed around a few ideas. It just took us a decade," said Singer, who grew up in a secular Jewish household in suburban New Jersey and as a child was mesmerized by World War II stories and pictures. His 1998 film Apt Pupil is about a teenager who comes under the spell of his neighbor - a former Nazi in hiding, and in the prologue to X-Men, the young Magneto is found in a concentration camp. "Ever since I was a kid, I've always been fascinated by World War II and the Nazi era. I can't really explain it, other than to say I used to watch Hogan's Heroes on TV. "I think it was there that I got the idea that there was maybe some diversity in the German army," said Singer. "Then, of course, I saw all the great Hollywood World War II movies, like The Great Escape and Stalag 17." "My two best friends when I was young were German, we were neighbors. And we used to talk about the Third Reich, look at books. We even had a little club. But as I got older, it began affecting me in a more personal manner. My family was from Poland and Russia, and we had a lot of victims. There were whole sections in family photo albums of people I never knew from my father's side who were completely eradicated. I would ask my mother, 'Who are these people?' Those are good people that are gone, just gone. That was a heavy concept for me." THE ISSUE of portraying a Nazi - any Nazi - in a somewhat positive light, as von Stauffenberg is portrayed in Valkyrie, is a sensitive point that has ruffled some bloggers and chat enthusiasts who take Singer and Cruise to task for what they claim as whitewashing some of his Nazi past. Singer responded that he made no attempt to "heroize" the character. "I think part of the reason for making the film was to show that in every society, even Nazi Germany, there were those that were trying to do what's right. It's never everybody - people are individuals," he said. "I initially approached the film as I would any film - to make sure it's thrilling and as exciting as possible. But the more I got involved, and the more time I spent in Germany doing research, the more obsessive it became to be as accurate as possible. The story is so extraordinary that I found myself not having to stray from the facts. And there were loads of facts because the Gestapo did such a thorough job of investigating and documenting the whole period. In the end, the movie is, for all the Hollywood factors involved, a pretty authentic account of what happened." Singer spent eight months in Germany - three of them doing research into the story - and five filming at as many of the original locations as possible. He tried to meet people connected to von Stauffenberg's family in order to get an idea of what he was like, including Hitler's last bodyguard and secretaries who worked at the Berlin communication center during the attempted 1944 coup. "Some of the Germans were a little apprehensive about opening up - but others, like von Stauffenberg's oldest son, Berthold, gave us a lovely interview and was very helpful. His grandson has a role in the film," said Singer. According to some media reports, Berthold had objected to Cruise taking on the role of his father due to his involvement with Scientology, but Singer said he was unaware of any ill feelings. Despite the research, Singer said that ultimately, it's up to the actor to decide who the character is. "No matter how many interviews you do, you're creating a character for the screen without having met them. It's not like when Tom did Born on the 4th of July and had Vietnam veteran Ron Kovics to learn from and hang out with. These guys are gone, but the key is to be true to the essence of their characters," said Singer. GIVEN THE historical nature of the film, Singer originally planned to create a less commercial end product, not foreseeing a major studio release with a major star like Cruise. "Originally, I envisioned a film with a smaller budget and no big names, maybe not a Sundance kind of movie, but something more low-key. Then I took it to United Artists (co-run by Cruise), who made the deal to do the film, and then Tom came aboard as an actor," said Singer. While the title Valkyrie may be difficult to pronounce and somewhat obscure for the typical filmgoer, Singer was adamant that the movie not be named like some generic action flick. "We debated calling the movie 'Operation Valkyrie,' but it sounded too much like a documentary. And calling it an operation makes it sound like just an operation, and this movie is much more than that," he said, adding that he had an affinity for the name through the music. "I loved that piece of music when I was a kid. I wasn't a fan of Wagner's politics, but definitely that piece of music. I figured if I, as a kid, could learn how to pronounce the work, then the public today could as well." He seems to have been right. Valkyrie has done well at the box office, recouping its $81 million-dollar budget within a month of its release in the US, and last week topping the revenue list of movies released internationally. For someone seemingly obsessed with Nazi-era Germany, Singer has until now been just as noticeably uninterested in Israel, even coming as close to the country as Akaba, but not crossing the border. "I've never been to Israel, I'm a very secular American Jew," he said. "I've actually seen Israel, though. We scouted a scene for Valkyrie in Akaba which we didn't end up using, so we had a good view of Eilat. I have a lot of friends from Israel, and we go back and forth all the time about why I haven't been to visit. It's become a point of contention. So I will have to make a New Year's resolution to come."