Once the fodder for gossip as brassy as a Wagner horn solo, the behind-the-scenes operatics that delayed the release of Valkyrie are quickly forgotten the minute Tom Cruise gets down to the business of plotting to kill Adolf Hitler. Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a Good German famous to his countrymen for his resistance to the Nazi mandate but less known among Americans. Trained as a loyal soldier, the well-bred officer's disgust at his Führer's leadership deepened following severe wounds suffered during battle in Tunisia, where he lost a hand and an eye. And the assassination plan and subsequent government transition that Stauffenberg devised, with help from a network of dissident army officers and political leaders, was an audacious blend of suspenseful daring and wonkish political strategy.
History confirms, of course, that the July 20, 1944, operation failed when a bomb planted in Hitler's presence did too little damage; the Nazi leader survived with minor scratches, army loyalists quelled the coup, and Stauffenberg suffered the consequences, along with scores of others. But Valkyrie, as field-commanded by director Bryan Singer, succeeds on its own terms as a handsome hybrid of conspiracy thriller and history lesson, of Mission: Impossible and The Day of the Jackal. The movie (with an uncluttered screenplay by Singer's old pal, Usual Suspects scripter Christopher McQuarrie, along with Nathan Alexander) is less interested in why these men, Stauffenberg in particular, decided to take such risks than in staging how they might have looked when they met in tight, secretive groups to plot and smoke cigarettes.
But they do look good, devising a new world order in rooms often lit with a touch of amber and outdoor scenes almost always shaded in the metallic palette of guns and steel. The mechanics of the actual plot are pretty amazing. Singer has assembled a top-notch international cast with Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, and Eddie Izzard among the British invasion and given them leave to speak their lines with the accents they brought from home. And in the middle, standing straight as a Top Gun ace, is Tom Cruise, that quintessentially self-constructed American movie star, speaking in quintessential American tones as he declares, ''We have to kill Hitler.'' Cue the trumpets. B