Despite his couch-jumping on Oprah and his bickering with Matt Lauer, Tom Cruise remains one of the heroes of American cinema. But in his first leading role since 2006, Cruise plays a German hero — one many Americans know little about.

In Valkyrie, a gripping World War II suspense thriller about one of the many attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Cruise plays Claus von Stauffenberg, a German army officer who works with the Resistance movement to try to remove the Nazis from power. Their combined efforts culminate in an attempted bombing during a military briefing on July 20, 1944, a day that dominates the final third of the film.

Cruise said he was struck by Von Stauffenberg's elaborate plot, even to the point that he believed the script doctored history for the sake of suspense. "When I put it down, I thought, this can't be true," he said at the film's press day in New York. "It's just a great story, and I'd never heard it before." Subsequent meetings with director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men, X2) and writer Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) assured him otherwise.

Cruise felt compelled to share the story. "It's important to know that it wasn't everybody — not everybody felt the way [Hitler did] or fell into the Nazi ideology," he said. "I grew up wanting to kill Nazis and wanting to kill Hitler, and remember thinking as a child, 'Why didn't someone just shoot him?' So it's an important story to tell.

"The thing that stood out to me was Stauffenburg himself and the amount of desperation and pain for him," Cruise said. "He wanted a moral country that participated in the world, not one of annihilation and Holocausts and world domination. He was a man who was able to see through all the propaganda and see how utterly insane Hitler was, and ultimately he was the one to say, 'Somebody's got to shoot that bastard.'"

The film has made headlines since production began way back in July 2007, mostly about its many release date changes. Now, it's opening on a very crowded Christmas and in the middle of awards season, both of which Cruise said were consequential.

"We weren't making this film for a release date," he said. "We just wanted it to reach a broad audience, and Christmas is a great time for movies. You want to put your film in a place where it has the largest audience available."

Cruise said he was impressed with the way Singer "geeked out" on the level of detail in the film. To get an idea of what Hitler's furniture looked like, for example, Singer sent craftsmen to the homes of collectors, in most cases blindfolded to protect the identities of the owners. But Singer said for once, his passion about a project was rivaled.

"As a director you always feel that nobody cares about the movie as much as you do," Singer said. "With Tom, you get the rare honor of having a partnership with someone who cares about this movie as much as I do. We experimented, and it was phenomenal because anything I'd ask he'd be like, 'Let's do it.' There was never a lack of wanting to try and never a lack of trust."

So will fans find it hard to be held in suspense when the history books have already taught us how it ends? Cruise doesn't think so. "Look at Apollo 13 or Titanic or any movie adapted from a book. You know how it's going to end," he said. "But in reading it, I was so caught up and was just whipping through the pages. I don't think audiences know the full degree of how this particular story ends."