JACKI LYDEN, host:
Three films opening during the holidays are set at the height of the Second World War. Two of them feature major movie stars in Nazi uniforms, "Valkyrie," starring Tom Cruise and "Good," starring Viggo Mortensen. The third film, "Defiance," features Daniel Craig fighting against the Germans. In a moment, we'll have a report on the true story behind the folks who were defiant in "Defiance," but first Bob Mondello looks at what these three movies have in common and what they don't.
BOB MONDELLO: Nazis, Nazis, everywhere you look. Must be Oscar season, where most of the Nazis will have British accents. Tom Cruise is positively surrounded by Brits in "Valkyrie," as he plays, with a flat American accent, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a high-ranking German officer who masterminded a plot to assassinate Hitler. We meet him a few years earlier, though, in North Africa.
(Soundbite of movie "Valkyrie")
Mr. TOM CRUISE: (As Col. Claus von Stauffenberg) We can serve Germany or the Fuhrer, not both.
Unidentified Man: It's just that sort of talk that had you sent here, Colonel.
Mr. CRUISE: (As Col. Claus von Stauffenberg) I'm just trying to get these men out of here alive.
MONDELLO: That, of course, is the sort of thing that movie heroes say just before lots of people die and sure enough...
(Soundbite of gun firing and airplane flying overhead)
MONDELLO: This sequence is all over the movie's trailers because it's action in a war movie that otherwise mostly involves people talking urgently into telephones. "Valkyrie" does look good, directed by Bryan Singer who made the "X-Men" movies, and there is a certain intrigue in watching how von Stauffenberg's plot went wrong. I don't think I'm spoiling anything here, Hitler was not assassinated. But as action movies go, "Valkyrie" is pretty short on action.
That's not true of "Defiance," the story of the Jewish Bielski partisans in Eastern Europe who armed themselves and managed to hide more than a thousand Jews for several years in densely wooded territory.
(Soundbite of gun firing)
MONDELLO: It's an inspiring story, one that doesn't need quite as much poetic inspiration as Ed Zwick's movie insists on giving it.
(Soundbite of movie "Defiance")
Unidentified Man: This is not a gun. To you, it is Bar Kokhba's spear, it is Samson's jawbone, it is Ehud's sword. It is the slingshot young David used to bring down the monster Goliath.
MONDELLO: This is not out of keeping with the director's other war movies - "Glory" and "The Last Samurai," among them, but in "Defiance," it has the effect of pushing a striking true story in the direction of hokey Hollywood ones. Oddly, what you miss in both "Defiance" and "Valkyrie," despite all the chest-thumping warriors, is inner conflict. Both films feature protagonists who aren't very interesting because they have not an instant of self-doubt. They're saintly, fighting evil, figures in historical pageants, not characters in a drama.
You want drama, go to a dramatist. English playwright C.P. Taylor wrote a play called "Good" that caused quite a stir with its portrayal of a liberal German professor in the 1930s. Played by Viggo Mortensen in the movie, the professor is summoned by a Nazi official and is startled to discover that a novel he wrote years ago about a loving husband who helps his terminally ill wife end her suffering has found favor with the Third Reich.
(Soundbite of movie "Good")
Unidentified Man: It raises controversial questions on the theme of the right to life. Some of your conclusions are quite revolutionary. I'll take it the views expressed here are once that you yourself hold.
Mr. VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As John Halder) It's been some years since I wrote it.
MONDELLO: That's not quite a denial, and in those same soothing tones, the official leads him a little further down a dangerous path, showing him a letter.
(Soundbite of movie "Good")
Unidentified Man: The Fuhrer has received several such letters from the relatives of unfortunates with incurable handicaps, requesting his special permission to ease their suffering, which is where you come in.
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As John Halder) Me?
Unidentified Man: We need a paper from you, Halder, arguing along the same lines as you do in your novel. The case for an enlightened approach to mercy death on the grounds of humanity.
MONDELLO: The implications are obvious to us, but this is early 1937, and they slip by the frightened professor.
(Soundbite of movie "Good")
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As John Halder) That's why you asked me here?
Unidentified Man: Why else?
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As John Halder) I'm hardly an expert. My mother has been chronically ill - tuberculosis.
Unidentified Man: Yes, well, the Fuhrer himself said it was written from the heart. Dr. Goebbels was also very impressed. In fact, he thought it might make an excellent basis for a motion picture on this theme.
MONDELLO: By going along, the professor finds himself prospering, but each seemingly inconsequential choice he makes gets him in deeper. The plot in "Good" is more or less a dramatization of the notion that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. The movie "Good" is pretty schematic in laying out that notion - betraying its theatrical roots, perhaps. It's also a little drawn-out. But it demonstrates the surprising power of character flaws in drama. How else to explain that the portrayal of a good man who does nothing in "Good" should prove more dramatically compelling than the stories in "Valkyrie" and "Defiance" of good men who did good? I'm Bob Mondello.