It's July 20, 1944, and Adolf Hitler has been assassinated — the victim of a bomb blast organized and executed by a cabal of high-ranking German army officers seeking to wrest control of the country from the Third Reich and, with luck, bring an end to World War II. Duped into thinking that the coup is actually the work of rogue members of Hitler's inner circle, the reserve army has taken to the streets of Berlin, arresting SS officers and other Nazi apparatchiks, while the rest of Axis Europe, taking its cue from Berlin, follows suit. By nightfall, Hitler's manifest destiny will be a thing of the past.
Well, that was the idea, anyway. If only Hitler hadn't moved that morning's strategy meeting at the Wolfsschanze from his airtight bunker to a breezy conference hut, and if only the briefcase planted by one Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — a maimed hero of the war's North African theater — hadn't bumped against the foot of Colonel Heinz Brandt, who proceeded to move it behind a large wooden table leg, shielding the Führer from the worst of a blast that killed four others. Even then, the ingenious plot might have come off had Stauffenberg's coconspirator, General Friedrich Olbricht, not had second thoughts about mobilizing the reserve troops, or if only someone had thought to cut off phone service to the office of Joseph Goebbels, so that, on the verge of being arrested himself, the propaganda minister wouldn't have been able to verify the voice of his still-living-and-breathing master at the other end of the line. If only.
It sounds like the blueprint for a classically constructed Hollywood espionage picture — and it is, albeit one whose most improbable twists issue straight from the historical record. Yet, curiously, it's taken Hollywood more than six decades to devote a major movie to the July 20 plot (a TV version, The Plot to Kill Hitler, appeared in 1990), one whose road to the screen would prove nearly as rocky as the failed coup itself. Directed by Bryan Singer and starring Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg, the $75 million Valkyrie (aka "Tom Cruise's Nazi movie") has made seemingly inexhaustible fodder for the industry trade papers and the tabloid rumor mill, where it has been subjected to a level of scrutiny usually reserved for political candidates and terror suspects.
Adding to the media feeding frenzy that accompanies each new film featuring the world's biggest movie star, Valkyrie is the second production of the newly resuscitated United Artists studio, which Cruise and his longtime producing partner, Paula Wagner, assumed control of in 2006, and whose first release, the Robert Redford–directed Lions for Lambs (featuring Cruise in a secondary role), was a critical and box-office disappointment. Further complicating matters, when Valkyrie began shooting in the summer of 2007, Cruise was still just two years on from the series of infamous media appearances that turned him into the biggest star of a whole other medium: YouTube.
Of the many teapot tempests that would attend the Valkyrie production, one of the first erupted when the German government denied the filmmakers permission (eventually granted) to shoot scenes in the Bendlerblock courtyard where Stauffenberg, Olbricht, and other July 20 participants were executed by firing squad. Then there was the report (later disproved) by Slate's Kim Masters insinuating that UA had doctored a publicity photograph of the real Stauffenberg to make him more closely resemble his chiseled celluloid avatar. Twice the movie's release was delayed (from June to October to February, only to then be pushed up to December), in part because of a prologue sequence that still had to be shot. Perhaps most amusing of all, "unauthorized" Cruise biographer Andrew Morton went so far as to suggest that Valkyrie was but an instrument of the Church of Scientology, designed to shore up the organization's position in Europe, no matter that (by Morton's own subsequent admission) the project originated with Singer and his Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie (neither of whom is a Scientologist).
It's little wonder, then, that Cruise and Singer seem downright giddy with relief when we sit down together on the eve of Valkyrie's New York premiere. Although they're at the end of a two-day international press junket and about to embark on several more days of nonstop TV appearances, they're happy to finally be talking in their own terms about the movie they made, instead of reading about it in the headlines.
At first glance, they do make something of an odd couple — Singer, who at 43 still looks very much the slouching USC film student in T-shirt and unfashionably faded, torn jeans, and Tom Terrific, who bounds into the conference room at Manhattan's Regency Hotel on a tide of boyish energy, with his rugged yet casual designer threads, impeccably tousled hair, and that irradiant smile. But it's just as soon evident that the star and his director share a jovial affinity for one another, so much so that they can (and often do) finish each other's sentences.
That rapport took hold early on in the Valkyrie development process, when Cruise and Singer would meet for up to 12 hours at a time, to discuss the movie at hand, of course, but just as often to talk about and even watch old movies they both love — to, as Cruise puts it, "film-geek out." For Singer, whose best-known films (including The Usual Suspects and X-Men) have been ensemble pictures cast with a mix of veteran character actors and rising young talent, those marathon rap sessions also helped to take the edge off his apprehension about working with his first billion-dollar movie star.
"From the start, it was very comfortable," Singer says. "Here was a person giving me complete trust and respect as an actor, and I know that he's just worked with Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg and Michael Mann — the list goes on. That immediately put me at ease. And ultimately, Tom brings out the best in you."