Vampires of history

Two movies opening this week are of historical import—one goes back to the 1970s and the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s fall from power; the other outlines the 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. One is a detailed, meticulous reconstruction of an inside-the-media story; the other is a dour inside-the-plot quasi-thriller.

Fictionalising historical characters is always a difficult job; the criteria for success are multiple and often mutually contradictory. If anyone was going to get relatively recent history right, it was Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen, and which also starred Michael Sheen; in Frost/Nixon he plays broadcaster David Frost instead of Tony Blair.

Up against him, Frank Langella plays Nixon—instead of Dracula, whom he impersonated in 1979, not long after the date of the Nixon interviews. Then again, Langella also played John Adams, second president of the United States, some time earlier, so he can do presidential as well as vampiric.

As Nixon, Langella is simply brilliant. There is no fake nose, and he seems taller than the real Nixon was, but the performance is utterly convincing. He’s even able to make one sympathise somewhat with the old crook.

After Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal and in the face of impeachment proceedings, he found himself being solicited for a series of TV interviews by a rather lightweight British broadcaster. Frost was more at home in the world of Australian game shows, it seems, than the heavy-duty world of political coverage. Nixon, a wily manipulator hypersensitive about his “legacy”, as well as eager for the fistful of dollars on offer, decided to go with Frost. He’d be a walkover. But he wasn’t.

The film shows how this all came about, with much behind-the-scenes stuff as Frost and Nixon prepare for their confrontation. This kind of thing can be dull (of interest more to media people than anyone else), but here it is made entertaining and gripping. Just as we come to sympathise, somewhat surprisingly, with Nixon, so our sympathies for Frost are disturbed a little; he’s not a clear-cut hero, or someone of great intellectual nous, but more like the right man in the right place at the right time—with a nose for good television. That the Nixon interviews, an edgy dance of one-upmanship between the two men, came so close to failure is also an interesting insight.

Talking of failure, we know that the 1944 plot to kill Hitler failed. He’d have another nine months to go before he did the job himself. So that element of suspense is missing from Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the war hero who planted the bomb that very nearly did blow up the Führer. Unlike Langella, who seems taller than Nixon, Cruise plays someone who was noted for being tall. In fact, Von Stauffenberg was noted for being the very model of the militaristic Übermensch Hitler idealised. He was also part of the German mystic poet Stefan George’s circle—one both rather homoerotically inclined and given to the kind of wafty Wagnerian nationalistic mumbo jumbo for which Hitler had a soft spot. Cruise’s Von Stauffenberg doesn’t cruise into that odd past; despite the inevitable reference to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, he’s no Siegfried come to slay the dragon Fafnir.

Instead, Cruise is a rather stolid presence in a rather stolid film. For all the conspiracy-mongering and so forth, it takes a good hour for Valkyrie to get suspenseful. By then we’re pretty much inside Hitler’s bunker. After that, it’s up to the standard Hollywood mechanisms of tension-building to grip us.

Until that point, the viewer is all too distractable. For me, it was a bit like watching Jesus of Nazareth about 30 years ago: the fun was in waiting for the next famous face to turn up—Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Anthony Quinn — In Valkyrie it’s a host of well-known character actors: Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Tom Hollander, Eddie Izzard — You expect Udo Kier to pop up at any minute, but when he does it is in fact Christian Berkel. Hitler, by the way, is played by David Bamber, who was Cicero in the TV series Rome. At this point in history, it would appear, Hitler was a rather ill vampire. Perhaps the echo of Max Schreck in Nosferatu was intentional.

Directed by Bryan Singer, who gave us The Usual Suspects and X-Men, Valkyrie isn’t as bad as I thought it might be. It’s just not very good, either. It’s well put-together and efficient, dragging us through its broad-strokes historical narrative with determination rather than flair. We understand more or less what went on, without much sense of any character’s depths, least of all those of the mysterious Von Stauffenberg himself. Perhaps it was felt that, just as we need no telling that Hitler was evil, we need no telling that the colonel was charismatic. Trouble is, when he’s played by Tom Cruise, some of us will need telling.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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