I finally watched Valkyrie this week, and I ended up liking it a lot more than I expected. Unlike many critics, I thought that Cruise did a solid job as Stauffenberg; within the parameters of the film it’s an uncomplicated role, and Cruise played it in an uncomplicated fashion. Stauffenberg’s primary role within the coup appears to have been as focal point for a set of disparate actors with disparate motivations, which I think that the film captured relatively well.
Apparently, the concern that Stauffenberg expresses for the treatment of the Jews under the Third Reich was also genuine, although I don’t have a sense of whether the issue was primarily about ends or means. The film certainly soft pedals Stauffenberg’s attitude towards the Poles, and rather misrepresents his plan for ending the war. The coup plotters seem to have expected that the deposition of the Nazi regime would lead to the immediate reversion to 18th century power politics, in which the British, French, and Americans would happily accept a truce (under which Germany would retain some territorial gains) in the West while Germany continued the war against Russia. By 1944 this was clearly not in the cards, and I doubt that it would have been acceptable at any point following US entry into the war. That the film didn’t explore this complication is unfortunate, but then it might have detracted from the more important story of the coup itself.
I found the depiction of the mechanics of the coup quite compelling. A remarkable degree of weight is put on both momentum and the presentation of accomplished fact; Stauffenberg realizes that killing Hitler will be sufficient to move events, even if Himmler escapes. Moreover, the choices that are presented to other actors are presented in terms of agreement with objective reality; Hitler is dead, we’re in control, and you’re either on board or you’re not. The coup begins to lose momentum when Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels provide a counter-reality, and especially when they provide key evidence indicating that the central claim of the coup plotters is false. When it becomes clear that Hitler is alive, the moment of contingency on which the coup plotters have built their entire case (“Hitler is dead, and we could go and try to figure out why, but the key point is that we’re the only ones who can maintain control now”) is closed, and the momentum of the plot dies.