Turning the true story of a 1944 attempt by German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler into a movie presents one considerable problem: The attempt failed, and everybody knows it. Conversely, "The Day of the Jackal," the 1973 film about an attempt to assassinate French president Charles DeGaulle, worked because the story was fiction — the movie was really a straightforward thriller that derived its tension from the cat-and-mouse interplay between a wily assassin and an intrepid police inspector. The German scenario, being rooted in real life, is less tidy. It involved a large cast of conspirators and a certain amount of muddling bureaucratic complexity. However, it also offers a real hero around which to construct a film — a handsome young colonel named Claus von Stauffenberg, who coordinated the assassination attempt and might have pulled it off had it not been for the intrusion of, well, real life.

Tom Cruise is probably not the first actor who would spring to most people's minds in connection with this role. And yet it's Cruise who has managed to get the movie made. And the surprise — for those who were expecting a train wreck — is how convincing he is. "Valkyrie," directed with admirable restraint by Bryan Singer, is an exceedingly well-crafted movie, and an educational one, too. (It's unusually faithful to the historical record.) And Cruise, somewhat encumbered as an actor by an eyepatch and an empty sleeve (Stauffenberg was maimed in combat in 1943), puts himself entirely at the service of the character — his trademark boyish grin is nowhere in evidence. It's an impressive performance.

The film's problem is inherent in the material. This is a movie about a confusingly numerous group of men with names like Fellgiebel, Goerdeler and von Haeften gathering in rooms to discuss secrets and strategies in an attempt to eliminate Hitler and invoke Operation Valkyrie — an emergency plan, sanctioned by Hitler himself, to allow an army element based in Berlin to take control of the civil government in case of a destabilizing enemy attack. The conspirators' intention was to terminate Hitler with a bomb, seize control of all communications, arrest the Nazi political leaders and SS goons, and begin negotiating the terms of an acceptable surrender with the Allied forces that were pressing in on Germany from the West. If their plot failed, they purportedly hoped that its attempt would at least demonstrate to the world that not all Germans supported the odious regime. (Anti-Hitler plots had been festering in the high command of the German army for years.) The movie's script, by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, is sleek and clearly constructed, but this is still a lot to take in.

The supporting cast is first-rate. Among the plotters are Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy and Kevin McNally; among their antagonists, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Hollander and — portraying Hitler as a fading old man — David Bamber. Cruise inserts himself comfortably among these British actors by use of a strictly neutral American delivery and carefully controlled deportment. And he brings some welcome warmth to the picture in conveying Stauffenberg's quiet torment over the possibility of what his treasonous actions could mean for his wife and children. (If the conspiracy should fail, they will likely be executed along with him.)

Although there's a combat scene at the beginning of the film and, unavoidably, a firing squad at its conclusion, "Valkyrie" is not an action movie (although it does build quite a bit of tension once the conspiracy gets underway). You can occasionally feel Singer trying to kick things along with acrobatic camera angles, but the picture is essentially a requiem for a lost cause. "I'm a soldier," Cruise's Stauffenberg says. "I serve my country. But this is not my country."

Check out Kurt Loder's review of "The Spirit," which also opens this week, picks for the best movies and performances of 2008.

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