NEW YORK – A Nazi-filled Christmas is not an easy sell.
That's just one of the challenges Tom Cruise faces with his new World War II thriller "Valkyrie," which opens Dec. 25. In the film, which portrays the seldom-recalled German resistance to Adolf Hitler, Cruise plays would-be Hitler assassin Col. Claus von Stauffenberg.
It's a risky film to make and not just because of the sensitive subject matter. Cruise has been trying to rehabilitate his image — and few PR experts regularly advise donning a German army uniform to engender warm feelings.
On the other hand, "Valkyrie" is also a serious, suspenseful film. Can it help put Cruise back on top?
In a recent interview, Cruise and director Bryan Singer downplayed the bad pre-release buzz for "Valkyrie."
The film's release date repeatedly changed. Early ads showing the similar appearance of an eye-patched Cruise and Stauffenberg were mocked online. At one point, German Defense Ministry officials said the production couldn't shoot at Berlin's Benderblock memorial to the Nazi resistance because of Cruise's beliefs in Scientology — which isn't recognized as a religion in Germany. (The statements were quickly recanted and shooting went forward.)
Cruise, 46, is familiar with uncontrollable spirals of bad publicity — and not just in the last few tumultuous years. He has long been dogged by rumors about his personal life and has been through productions (like 1988's "Rain Man," he points out) that seemed doomed before they were released.
"It's nice to be able to have people talk about the film, as opposed to us reading about the film," Cruise said. "It is what it is. And I understand it. I do understand it."
His recent bout of bad publicity started with that fateful appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show in 2005. Then there was the awkward interview with "Today" show host Matt Lauer. The following year, Paramount Pictures severed its 14-year relationship with him.
"As I've said, I want an adventurous life," said Cruise. "And yet I've gotten a little bit more adventure than I bargained for."
A rebound is fully in the works. Cruise revisited Winfrey — the scene of the sofa — earlier this year. On Monday, he publicly patched things up with Lauer. He started his own Web site, too.
And last week, he received a Golden Globe nomination for his hilarious performance in Ben Stiller's raunchy summer comedy "Tropic Thunder," in which he plays a dirty-dancing, foul-mouthed studio head.
With producer Paula Wagner, Cruise reformed the United Artists film studio as a boutique label for MGM. Their first film for UA, last year's "Lions for Lambs," was a critical and box-office failure and Wagner exited as chief executive officer in August. The more expensive "Valkyrie" — reportedly made for $90 million, though Singer said $75 million is more accurate — is a considerable gamble for both UA and Cruise.
He jokes at the predicament: "Go kill Hitler on Christmas!"
There were many plots to assassinate Hitler, but the one involving Stauffenberg and many other high-ranking German officers is well-known in Germany. On July 20, 1944 (six weeks after D-Day), Stauffenberg conspired to kill Hitler with a bomb and install a change-of-power scheme called Operation Valkyrie. The plot failed (Hitler would kill himself in April 1945) and about 200 were executed for their involvement.
The film was written by Christopher McQuarrie and his writing partner Nathan Alexander. McQuarrie's last collaboration with Singer was the widely admired "The Usual Suspects" (1994). After bringing "Valkyrie" to Singer, the two expected to make a "small" film for less than $20 million.
"I love it when he says that," jokes Cruise. "I laugh at him. All you have to do is read the script. It has the planes, it's in Berlin. How is this ever a small film?"
Now embracing his instinct for big movies, Singer (who also helmed "X-Men," "X2" and "Superman Returns") said, "You sell the small film and then you go: `We could have cardboard or we could have the metal. I'm just saying.' It is a bit of a shell game."
McQuarrie is quick to acknowledge he never expected the film to get made, but believes the result is a "delightfully odd movie" in the tradition of taut World War II thrillers like "The Great Escape," "The Devil's Brigade" and "Where Eagles Dare."
Said Singer: "We always knew that it was a thriller, we always knew that it was for the mainstream. It was not something we were gunning for awards."
Early reviews for "Valkyrie" have been mixed. Variety said its commercial prospects are "so-so." The Hollywood Reporter called it "a fine film" that "should enjoy modest success, but if Cruise's career is seen as momentarily stalled, `Valkyrie' is not the electric jolt he's looking for as a jump-start."
Cruise's Stauffenberg is, like many of the actor's roles, an embodiment of determination. With a similar steadfastness to Ethan Hunt of the "Mission: Impossible" movies, the striving agent in "Jerry Maguire" or the more demented determination of Vincent in "Collateral," Cruise's Stauffenberg is resolute.
"I think there is that part of me, there is that spirit of wanting to engage in life," said Cruise. "Here's a guy who worked under tremendous amounts of pressure, and still could be absolutely clear and lucid about his choices and try to push this and drive this forward."
Watching Cruise promote "Valkyrie," it's easy to see a similar indomitable pluck. On his way to a photo shoot, he rapidly changes his shirt, bare chested (and notably muscular) for a flash. Between interviews, he cheerfully autographs a movie poster for a pilot, being sure to sign it "Maverick," alluding to his "Top Gun" character. He speaks passionately about "Valkyrie," repeatedly explaining his interest, above all, in entertaining people and "telling stories."
"I'm a father," said Cruise, who's married to Katie Holmes and has three children. "You have to choose the things you want to focus on. I make movies."
Cruise won't say if that means removing himself further from his mogul duties at UA, but he does state that he'd like to be making three films a year. (At the moment, he doesn't have anything immediately lined up but is developing several projects.)
As ever, Cruise tries to remain doggedly foward-looking.
"I'm an actor first and foremost," he said. "I have the freedom to do what I want to do."