Overlooked Fims: The Monuments Men

Directed by George Clooney
Columbia Pictures, 118 minutes, PG-13
* * *

Great story in a not-so-great film
I avoided this one when it came out because I heard it wasn't very good. That's true. It's also not terrible—it's a classic Hollywood middle-of-the-road star vehicle. It's riddled with problems, but it's also a good way to pass a few hours on a slow night. (I saw it after a heavy meal on an evening too cool to walk it off!)

The Monuments Men is based (all too) loosely on the eponymous non-fiction book by Robert Edsel, which recounts the fascinating story of Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program formed in the waning days of World War II. As most know, the Nazis looted tens of thousands of works of art from museums and homes in vanquished lands. All were destined for what was supposed to be the crowning jewel of Hitler's Third Reich: a massive Fuhrermuseum in Berlin. By 1944, it was clear that would not happen and rumors circulated of Hitler's "Nero decree" to destroy everything if the Reich fell. The Monuments Men were charged with finding and saving as much as they could. Especially at risk was "degenerate art" created by Jews and those considered to be of low character (like Van Gogh).

There were several dozen Monuments Men, but Clooney's film reduces them to a gang of seven, of whom all are composite figures except for Clooney in the role of Frank Stokes and Jean Dujardin (of "The Artist") in the role of Jean Claude Clermont. The rest of the cast was chosen largely for their star power: Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville ("Downton Abbey"), Bob Balaba, and Dimitri Leonidas. Cate Blanchett appears as Claire Simone, an art curator in Occupied France forced to aid the Nazis, though that character is also based loosely on others. What ensues is a combination buddy film and race against time, with pieces of art such as the Ghent Altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna holding (often heavy-handed) metaphorical significance.

Keep in mind that this film takes more liberties than a drunken sailor. It is decidedly not an accurate historical telling of the MFAA program; for that you need to go to Edsel, where you'll find out, among other things, that a lot of the art was saved by either intrepid locals or by guilt-ridden Nazis who defied orders to destroy it. It is also fair to chide Clooney for shifting the focus from the art to male bonding rituals. One might forgive him for this too, if he hadn't scripted much of those relationships as if they were an extended Hogan's Heroes episode. It was also a mistake to cast so many well-known actors. Put simply, you don't hire Blanchett, Damon, Goodman, et. al. and not give them screen time. The film feels cluttered, despite the fact that the major characters were pared in number. 

All of this is to say that The Monuments Men isn't great filmmaking. It is, however, a terrific story about a little-known subject whose history should be told. Recent acts of art barbarism committed by groups such as the Taliban and ISIS are poignant reminders of the fragility of what gets labeled "civilization." Would that Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq had their own Monuments Men to protect their heritage from modern-day fascists in headscarves.

The Monuments Men is an imperfect telling of a heroic effort. At times Clooney's direction borders on inept and he sure as hell could have used some scholars to prevent him from making freshman mistakes (like color slides in the 1940s). But the next time you admire a Monet, a Van Gogh, a Klimt, a Raphael, or a Rembrandt, think of the MFAA. For all its flaws, The Monuments Men reminds us of what could have been lost forever. Like I said, an imperfect telling, but an important tale.—Rob Weir

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