"We have to show the world that not all of us are like him," vows Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) to a crowded room full of his fellow Nazi officers. They've gathered to plot the overthrow of the Third Reich, starting with the assassination of Hitler and ending with an elegantly crafted military coup. It's certain death if they're found out, but von Stauffenberg has had enough. Being wounded in Tunisia has calcified his deep disdain for the Nazi war machine, and now his dreams of returning Germany to her former integrity swell when he listens to a Victrola recording of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."
Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns) doesn't succeed in liberating that tune from the ghost of Apocalypse Now, but every other detail of his World War II thriller is executed spit-and-polish perfectly, even down to the unlikely choice of Cruise in the leading role. Cruise has built a formidable screen legend out of only three acting gears--discipline, rage, and cocksure charm. He's incapable of the kind of Dionysian indolence with which someone like Robert Downey Jr. or the late Heath Ledger could saturate a performance (imagine how much more sensual and fun either of those men could have made Interview With the Vampire or Eyes Wide Shut, two roles that pushed Cruise painfully past his zone of competence.) But here, as a man of impeccable comportment, valor, and honor, those three gears are all he needs. This is a role that's custom made for Cruise (although, for a Nazi, that profile is a little suspect, nicht wahr?) He's refined his trademark tight smile and flash of the eyes in a way that honors, not apes, the way Paul Newman could do the same, and regardless of how his off-screen shenanigans have irreversibly tarnished his on-screen image, the harmony between role and actor allows the audience to believe wholeheartedly in this exceptional man's doomed crusade.
Because he is doomed, right? It's no spoiler to announce that Hitler survives von Stauffenberg's plot, so the filmmakers' challenge is to find a way to make the getting there suspenseful. For the most part Singer succeeds in investing scenes with tension and surprise, but there's no escaping the inevitable. When it arrives, all the importance of the past two hours whooshes out of the story, like hot steam escaping a dejected soufflé. It's like the makers of Titanic could have told them--you can put in all the sturm und drang you want, but in the end the boat has to go down.