Story matters. By rights, this winter’s anti-Nazi double feature, Valkyrie and Defiance — in which the Wehrmacht’s officer class and Belarus’s Jews, respectively, take up arms against Hitler’s Germany — ought to be a two-engine train wreck. The former film stars an eyepatched Tom Cruise as the German aristocrat Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a piece of miscasting disastrous enough to sink most movies by itself. The latter is yet another earnest humanist epic from Edward Zwick, a director whose recent curriculum vitae includes the lousy historical epic The Last Samurai and the yet-lousier modern epic Blood Diamond. Both movies’ scripts are thudding and obvious; both are war stories from a war that’s already launched more films than Hitler’s Germany had panzers. In Valkyrie, you know how the movie’s going to end; by the midpoint of Defiance, you can more or less predict it.
But story matters. Even if it’s hard to watch Tom Cruise impersonate a Bavarian nobleman without giggling, or to avoid rolling your eyes when Zwick smacks you upside the head with yet another pious speech or dose of heavy-handed symbolism, the on-screen events in both cases are too riveting to be ruined by miscasting and melodrama. You won’t leave Valkyrie convinced that its star was the right choice to play the man who nearly assassinated Hitler, or Defiance convinced that its director has risen above the high-minded hackery that’s defined most of his career. But the stories they’re telling are flat-out fascinating enough that you won’t be sorry to have seen them try.