Sunday, January 11, 2009

Maverick vs. The Nazis

by Chuck Williamson

In Top Gun, audiences witnessed the formation of a new American masculinity that apotheosized the slick, surface-only milieu of the eighties. Countering the hyper-macho protest masculinities of Stallone and Bronson, Cruise perfected a balanced mix of boyish androgyny, suburban naiveté, all-American affability, and a homosocial, boys-only machismo masking a deeper, non-threatening sensitivity that always blossomed fully-formed once he started serenading his female co-star to the tune of some Top 40 hit. Formed in smoldering cauldron filled with various inchoate elements—a chiseled hard-body, a charismatic magnetism, a pearly white smile, a homogeneity symptomatic of the decade—the persona crudely birthed in Risky Business became fully alchemized in kitsch-classics like Top Gun, Cocktail, and Days of Thunder. He was vanilla bland, all-American, safe—the sort of man you’d take home to ma and pa if he weren’t too busy saving democracy from the red menace in his F-14 Tomcat.

For the spectator, he became an object of lust fetishized by both the male and female gaze, a blank slate on which the audience could project social and sexual desires—which, most often, commingled. He was a movie star, all surface, no substance, attracting a zeitgeist who unwittingly queered the boundaries of the spectator’s cravings. His super-glamorous visage became one of destabilized signifiers denoting a polymorphous desire—and since the Cruise persona demanded a degree of superficiality and emptiness, the spectator’s desires could be multifarious. He might always be a regular “wingman” with the boys—playing sweaty games of volleyball, indulging in some “flair bartending” one-upmanship, popping wheelies on the race-track—but he’ll always “take our breath away” in a forced heteronormative subplot. In the eighties and early nineties, Cruise was the quintessential celebrity—an empty vessel to store hopes, dreams, and desires.*

With Valkyrie, one might assume that the carefully constructed Cruise persona—itself subverted and inverted in his most successful performances**—would be nullified entirely by the dour, dignified trappings of a World War II drama. But Cruise’s participation in the film only highlights the strange, discordant nature of Valkyrie, as the performance—and the film—are crippled by a series of incongruities and cognitive dissonances that undermine any sort of gravitas that might potentially be cultivated from its subject matter. In this film, Cruise at first appears to be drained of his persona, as he is physically mutilated, sexually neutered, and depleted of his erotic magnetism. Yet through its cinematography, lighting, and editing, the film fails to accurately depict the physical and psychic vulnerability necessary for this role, as Cruise is still framed in glamour shot close-ups, thick studio-lighting, and dramatic—hyper-sexualized, even—static tableaus where the actor poses like a department store mannequin in his chic, fashion-forward Nazi uniform. Cruise falls back on familiar acting tics that have become trademarks of his now weather-beaten persona—and against the will of the filmmakers, he somehow worms through the picture as a tired-and-true, tabloids-and-couch-cushions movie star. Throughout the film, the gulf between our understanding of the character and our expectations for the Cruise persona grow irreparably wide, and the sort of superficial charisma that marked all of Cruise’s mainstream efforts seeps into this film. Alternating between grim intonations and mad-dog barking, Cruise’s performance attempts to mimic a substantive center, but further emphasizes the innate emptiness of his performance. Unable to construct a stable or tactile character out of Stauffenburg, Cruise fails to distance himself from his star persona. He’s Tom Cruise, goddammit, and while the film attempts to dislodge itself from this in-built spectrum of audience expectations, the performance lacks the spatial/temporal specificity needed for it to work. Regardless of the spectator’s desire to suspend his or her disbelief, the familiar persona manifests in the film’s recurring glamorization—both formal and performative—undermine the film entirely. Cruise is not only miscast and outmatched by the material, but his performance functions as but one of the film’s fatal discontinuities.

These errors are, of course, not immediately apparent. After a somber, multilingual opening (a sign that this is Serious Fucking Business), the brutal scarification that would rob audiences of the Cruise persona takes place off-screen—a clear sign that, through visual nondisclosure, the film will comply with the spectator’s wish for Cruise to be Cruise. As mentioned, Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenburg, a dissident officer stationed in North Africa who is critical of the various (vaguely alluded to) transformations that have transpired in Germany since Hitler’s rise to power. After critical injuries to his eye and hands sends him out of the frontlines and into the belly of German bureaucracy, Stauffenburg falls in with a clandestine group of disgruntled officers and politicians plotting to seize power from Hitler in an attempt to, in their words, “show the world that not all of us [the conspirators] are like him.” Inspired by the cacophonous commingling of Wagner and air-raids, Stauffenburg concocts a plan to maneuver into governmental power through Operation Valkyrie, a proposed back-up administration that would, hypothetically, be activated in the case of Hitler’s death. By assassinating Hitler and initiating Valkyrie, Stauffenburg and his co-conspirators plan to take control of Berlin and sign a peace accord with the Allies, thus sparing Europe the human cost of a full-scale war. Of course, this convoluted power-play hinges on a carefully orchestrated assassination attempt that, if botched, could be their doom.

While we rarely expect pop-entertainment to attain the sort of biopictorial verisimilitude found in a Rossellini film, Valkyrie nonetheless weakens its ability to generate pathos, authenticity, or historical coherence through its reductive, Manichean reconstruction of Nazi Germany. Drained of all subtlety, Valkyrie opts for historical revisionism. While such revisionism is not uncommon in Hollywood—look to John Ford for its most successful progenitor—the degree to which this film depoliticizes its subject ultimately wounds its narrative. Specifically, the film systemically censors—much like the fascists it ostensibly rejects—all overt references to ethnocide, pogroms, or concentration camps, glossing over these things through an occasional euphemistic aside that is coded to the point of obfuscation. While such reductive depoliticalizations might work in exploitation or b-movie fare, in this film it creates nothing more than a disconnect between the film’s historical misrepresentations and the choking austerity and dourness produced by the film. This might be acceptable once Valkyrie sheds its somber tone in the second half—turning the failed assassination attempt into a moderately successful suspense sequence—but then again fumbles. Limited by its foregone conclusion, Valkyrie fails generate a sustainable suspense that can withstand our foreknowledge that—spoiler alert—Hitler survives and their plan fails. Like the inclusion of Tom Cruise, the film’s attempts at simulating the formal and narrative elements of an espionage thriller creates a cognitive dissonance where the audience fails to reconcile the visual/aural stimuli provoking a specific response and the elementary foreknowledge of the film’s fixed denouement. This creates an obvious problem. Burdened with a dismal central performance and an ahistorical conceptualization of Nazi Germany, the film fails as an authentic World War II drama. Yet despite the suspense-thriller posturing that dominates its third act, Valkyrie also fails as pop entertainment.

Although director Bryan Singer keeps Valkyrie slick, entertaining, and well-crafted, the burden of its flaws makes his task Sisyphean in scope. Valkyrie never fails to entertain—it ticks along with the full-throttle intensity of Singer’s superhero efforts—but it still sags under the heavy weight of its dissonances and discontinuities—particularly the casting of Tom Cruise, who acts as a sort of albatross even during the most technically competent suspense sequences. Even the erratic accents—a chaotic mélange itself—underline the absurdity of Cruise’s inclusion, where his West Coast enunciations create a linguistic atonality amongst the solid hum of European voices. Alternating between high camp and absurdity, Cruise’s performance feels unthreaded from the rest of the film, coming across as nothing more than a last-ditch effort for respectability from a movie-star long disgraced within the tabloid culture that created him. While never the disaster many forecasted at the beginning of the year, Valkyrie is a muddle, inconsistent effort irreparably harmed by the participation of one individual.

* These aspects of the Cruise persona later became the fodder for parody, as evidenced in the National Society of Film Critics’ gag vote for his nomination as best supporting actress in Vanilla Sky. This could, unfortunately, also have something to do with Cruise’s homophobic gay panic responses to media doubts of his alpha-dog heterosexuality—but that, my friends, is an essay for another day (actually, do a search for “Tom Cruise + Gay” and have fun with the myriad search results).

** Just so everyone knows I’m not a bully needlessly picking on defenseless multimillionaire Tom Cruise, I will admit to really liking three of his performances: his berserker misogynist in Magnolia, his battered-and-broken war vet in Born on the Fourth of July, and his staccato-speaking cuckold in Eyes Wide Shut. Interestingly, all of these performances acknowledge the Cruise persona in some way: subversion, inversion, parody, whatever. Singer’s film merely tries to have us ignore it by forcing its character to look glum for two hours.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit something here and now.

My name is Tony Oswald and I enjoy both Jerry McGuire and Vanilla Sky (not to mention the three films in your double astericked footnote). I was young, they found a place in my heart and ever since I've not minded Tom Cruise. In fact, I'd say I've enjoyed him.

With that said you've written a clear defense of why you don't think my Tommy works in Valkyrie, and I'm willing to agree. I just wanted everyone here to know that I am in a triangle of sorts cause I like both tom cruise and this review.

Chuck W said...

Thanks for the compliments.

No need to feel shame. There's no shame in appreciating or even liking Tom Cruise, as he normally accomplishes what is demanded of him--provided that the director understands his image and limitations. Hell, even I'll admit to have a mild fondness for the goofy, homoerotic, camp classic charm of Top Gun. He's no Daniel Day Lewis, but he's always a reliable actor for a specific type of role.

I hope the review didn't come across as mean-spirited.

In many ways, Tom Cruise seems like a relic from the studio star system--where the movie star played an active role in the construction of diegetic and nondiegetic narratives.

Joel Bocko said...

You note the movie's exclusion of the Holocaust among other Hitler-era atrocities...why do you think this is? I would guess it has something to do with a) the audience already knows about all that, no need to distract them from the main plot and b) let's keep the focus on suspense.

But I didn't think Singer made a very compelling, gripping thriller. I enjoyed it OK, but kept wondering what a Melville would have done with this plot (and I don't think he would have mentioned the Holocaust either).

As for Cruise, his recent real-life antics have only unmasked the hyperactivity and bizarre intensity that always hovered on the edge of camp in all his performances. Anyway, he's always been at his best playing an asshole.

Chuck W said...

Thanks for the commentary, MovieMan. :)

I don’t think that the film wants the viewer to rely on his or her preconceived knowledge of the Holocaust—instead, I believe the film wants to supplant a more comprehensive, authentic view of history with its own revisionist retelling. By not giving us all the facts, the film fabricates its own version of Nazi-era Germany—one without the intricacies and nuance of the original referent. This would have also made the film far more complex and ambiguous—and unmarketable. In many ways, an investigation—or even a mention—of the Holocaust would ruin the reductive categories of “Good Nazis” and “Bad Nazis” proffered by the film. Instead, the film would be forced to address that the protagonists were, to some extent, culpable or at least tolerant of these atrocities.

Of course, I wouldn’t have minded so much if the film had worked as a suspense-thriller. But it didn’t.

I can see Melville making this movie work though.