An effective thriller is comparable to an exciting roller coaster.
As an aficionado of the roller coaster I generally judge a ride based primarily on one factor: how much "float time" does the ride produce? During what percentage of the experience am I in a state of weightlessness as a result of the twists, turns, rises, and falls of the ride? This is the experience for which coaster junkies live.
Thrillers have a similar vital component: suspense. During how much of the film are we kept in a state of tense unknowing? How intensely do we not know what's going to happen? How long are we floating?
Historical films are at an inherent disadvantage in the thriller genre since we usually tend to know already what the ending will be. It's for this reason why you see so few historical thrillers. Instead it's much more common to have historical dramas that focus on characters and ideas instead of suspense.
Perhaps "Valkyrie" would have been more successful if it had taken this route.
The film finds Tom Cruise starring as German colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. After suffering devastating wounds in the North African theatre of World War II - he loses his right hand, an eye, and several fingers on his left hand - Stauffenberg is reassigned to Berlin. Already horrified by the brutality of the Nazi regime at the time of his injuries once in Berlin he falls in with the resistance movement and begins developing the July 20 Plot.
The plan is incredibly clever: to stage a coup utilizing a plan that was designed to prevent a coup. Stauffenberg, recently promoted to a position that affords him proximity to Hitler, will plant a bomb at a war strategy meeting. He'll then escape, the bomb will go off, and his co-conspirators will then initiate Operation Valkyrie, a secret plan devised in the event of an SS coup against Hitler. The officers and generals in the resistance will seize control of the government, arrest all Nazi officials, and then begin undoing the horrors that the Third Reich brought upon Germany and the world.
The film shows in meticulous detail how the group attempted the coup, proceeded with it even though Hitler was not killed, and then how the Nazis struck back at the resistance.
The film is effective and entertaining in many regards. Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie has constructed a tight screenplay that depicts the events of the conspiracy in an understandable and entertaining fashion. Director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects," "X-men," "Superman Returns") further demonstrates his ability to stage exciting action set pieces. Cruise is fine. He's basically playing himself - the confident hero - and he's effective for the action-thriller the film decides to be.
What the film pointedly decides not to do is drama. We don't really get into the characters heads very much. We don't understand them as people so much as chess pieces on a board. But how much fun is it to watch a chess game when you already know who's going to win and how the checkmate will go down? I find that often a good way to figure out how effective a film is as drama is to try and remember the characters' names. Who are the lead players in the film? The only ones that stick in one's memory are Stauffenberg and Hitler. Everyone else, since they're not very well defined, just kind of squishes into the background.
Will "Valkyrie" provide the bounce to return Cruise to his position of respectability in cinematic culture? Probably not, though it won't likely hurt him. What he should do is another smaller, quirkier film like "Magnolia" in which he can actually act instead of just play a Tom Cruise action hero.
The rollercoaster that Cruse, Singer, and McQuarrie have constructed is one without any float time. It's certainly a fast ride with twists and turns but never am I floating in the unknown. I always know exactly how it's going to end so it's just a matter of waiting for our heroes to fail. How could this have been avoided? Easy: refocus the story into a drama instead of a thriller and allow the audience to lose themselves in an exploration of these characters and their inner conflicts and personal struggles. That's an equally exciting ride and one more worthy of the real life heroes for which it was constructed to memorialize.