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Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I remember Christmas of 2006; I went to the mall with my cousin Nate and stood in line with him as he waited patiently for his turn to talk with that jolly old elf himself, Santa Claus. Now usually this wouldn’t seem like such an unusual activity a week or so before December 25th, but Nate was 36 at the time and his last name is Abramowitz. When the “head elf”, a glue-sniffing 17-year old I knew from around my neighborhood whose name appears in “Day in Court” more often than Barack Obama’s appears in the national or political stories of the newspaper, finally told Nathan it was his turn, I stepped to the side of the artificial North Pole and gave him a thumbs-up.

I watched as Nate snuggled up next to Santa and whispered in his ear his secret wish for the perfect gift. “Santa, Baby, all I want for Christmas is a great big movie starring Tom Cruise as a one-eyed Nazi with a bone to pick with da Fϋhrer. I’ve got a screenplay right here in my briefcase.” As Nate reached in his attaché Santa raised his eyebrow and gave Nathan an outraged look. “You dirty bird, what are you, some kind of G—D--- anti-American terrorist?” He stood up from his velvet-covered chair and unceremoniously dumped poor Nate on his ample keister in front of the snaking line of children and parents who stood, slack-jawed, by Santa’s sudden spew of profanity. Even his elves were looking a bit greener than they usually did after their behind-the-mall bong breaks. From my point of view near the giant Styrofoam candy canes, I noticed Santa’s jugular vein throbbed in quick and perfect beat with the piped-in version of The Carpenters “Sleigh Ride” that played behind the “Take a Picture with Santa Claus” display here in the center of the building. “Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up, let’s go…” It sounded like a good idea to me, but Nate was slow to give up.

“Please, just give this to your Uncle to read, I beg you!” he hollered as Kevin, the huffing head elf, and two of his hench-elves grabbed Nate by the ankles and dragged him through the shredded paper “flakes” of faux snow and out to the nearby Auntie Anne’s Pretzels storefront where two flabby security guards were running slowly towards him. Nate scurried to his feet, dusted off the fake precipitation, and gave me a yell. “Let’s get outta here!” And so we did.

Now, two years later and Nate has dropped the
‘Abramowitz’ and it is his middle name ‘Alexander’ that is on the script, and he and his life partner Christopher McQuarrie are listed not only as the writers but as producers of Valkyrie, the better-than-you’d-imagine World War II movie chalk-full of intrigue about a true-life attempt to assassinate Hitler by someone from within his own trusted circle of advisors. Hollywood works in mysterious ways, my Darlings, and I have no idea what Nathan might have written inside the cover of that screenplay that prompted “Santa” to deliver it on to the powers that be, but whatever it was, it worked, and so now everyone can enjoy this tension-filled historical drama.

Okay, so Tom Cruise (Tropic Thunder) would NOT be my first choice if someone asked me to pick an actor who I’d think of as “the perfect Nazi.” Granted, he has the experience, being the perfect Scientologist, which is really the same thing without the concentration camps (so far), but he looks too boyishly sweet. Still, here he is, playing Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a high mucky-muck in the German Army, who loses a hand and an eye as well as several fingers on his remaining hand during a battle in Tunisia, making him a heroic figure amongst his peers. Because of his injuries, he is transferred to a strategic leadership position in Berlin where he eventually comes in contact with others who feel as he does, that Adolph Hitler is ruining the German Army and Germany itself because of his maniacal plans for world domination and his genocide of the “impure races.”

This ragtag group of other army officers, led by Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), and civilian Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp; Yes Man), make up a few of the underground members who have been plotting for almost two years to find a way to destroy Hitler. Obviously, because Hitler is so well-protected, getting access to him is an almost impossible mission and everybody knows if there is a Mission Impossible you’ve got to call Tom Cruise.

So lots of stressful and scary things happen in the next hour or so of the film, which is also fascinating at the same time. For those of us who had never heard of this real life “Operation Valkyrie” it is an education in paranoia, just seeing the security that existed to protect da Fϋhrer. No wonder it was so difficult to kill the guy. It looks like one of today’s video games with all the many levels of hidden shooters you have to pass through just to get into his bunker, yet alone to actually make contact with the man himself, but I digress.

As you can expect in any situation (and movie) like this, much goes wrong, and when it does, the suspense grows exponentially. It’s a credit to director Bryan Singer (Superman Returns) that he can ratchet up the anxiety so well despite our already knowing the ultimate outcome of von Stauffenberg’s efforts thanks to history being what it is.

The most remarkable thing, at least to me, comes in a scene in which a group of women who work
the teletype machines in Army intelligence (so ‘state-of-the-art’ for 1944) receive the erroneous information that Hitler is dead. They do as instructed and signal their superiors with the news by raising their hands to get the men’s attention (naturally the “superiors” are all men), but they remain silent. I have no idea who the one day player is on the far-left of the screen, nearest where the men stand, but she absolutely coveys, without a word, the heartache of a nation who has lost a beloved leader. I actually found myself moved by her near-tears even though it is Adolph Hitler she was mourning because she obviously is so far down the food chain that she is completely unaware of his atrocities and, to her, his death is probably as tragic as those who remember President Kennedy’s assassination must have felt at the time. I know I can totally relate to her grief, even if it is misplaced on someone who doesn’t deserve it (and not just because he wasn’t really dead). I wanted to jump into the picture and offer her a big slice of Gugelhopf to cheer her up.

The only thing I wish there had been more of in Valkyrie was a sense of what drove von Stauffenberg to a point that he would risk his entire family’s lives by accepting this assignment. We see the family briefly and it is obvious in the scene where Nina von Stauffenberg (Carice van Houten; Dorothy Mills) comes to the hospital after Claus is wounded and loses his eye and hand that she is deeply in love with her husband and him with her. From there, the von Stauffenberg’s personal life remains a mystery and it is anybody’s guess why exactly he becomes so disenchanted with what is happening in the war that it supersedes his devotion to his wife and children. The easy answer would be to say his conscience objected to the death camps, but the movie doesn’t even touch on that ghastly subject.

This year I called to ask Nate if he wanted to visit Santa again but now that he’s such a Hollywood
bigwig he didn’t return my call. He did, however, send me two free passes to see Valkyrie and a form letter that thanked me for my interest in his career and it urged me to keep an eye out for his next project, due in late 2009, and called The Mayor of Castro Street. If I wasn’t so p.o.’ed about his not bothering to even recognize his own cousin’s letter I’d be a little nicer and let him know that there’s already a movie on that same subject out now called Milk, starring Sean Penn, but I’ve never been accused of being too nice. Just ask Santa.

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