The Monuments Men (2014) is a fairly fascinating history and a fairly frustrating movie. It tells the true story of an Allied military commission sent all over the European theater in the last days of World War II on a mission to retrieve some of the world’s most culturally valuable works of art stolen by the Nazis. The group risks its lives in a struggle to get ahead of their own advancing armies and catch up with the retreating Germans as they tried to smuggle the continent’s greatest paintings, statues and artifacts into the Reich. As their nation comes closer to surrender, the larger the threat grew that the pieces would be destroyed. That sort of story seems like it would demand a certain sort of urgency, but we don’t get that in The Monuments Men, which drags a bit, spending more time talking about how important this mission is as opposed to getting on with it.
The idea was conceived by Frank Stokes (George Clooney), a civilian art historian who convinces the war board that winning the war will have little meaning if much of the world’s masterpieces are lost. Frank Stokes is an invented composite character of a number of real people and is not to be confused with the Tennessee guitarist who is considered the father of the Memphis blues (but what a story that would have made). He recruits a team of other art historians, painting reconstructionists and architects to join the Army with him and win the war for culture. Their numbers grow to seven, halfway to the being an Ocean’s Eleven sequel, and they include Granger (Matt Damon), Campbell (Bill Murray), Garfield (John Goodman), Savitz (Bob Balaban) and two members of the Royal Army: Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Clermont (Jean Dujardin). Most of the cadets are beyond serving age and basic training doesn’t come easily but before long they are off in Europe tracking down Rembrandts and Michelangelos.
The movie’s problem is also its saving grace. There’s a lot of information here and much of it is fascinating and Clooney (who also directed and wrote the script with Grant Heslov) is determined to give us all of it. The problem with history is that it doesn’t adhere to our dramatic requirements. It’s messy and complicated and sometimes doesn’t make for a good two-hour movie. The story is truncated for dramatic purposes (there were many more real Monuments Men, as they call themselves, than the seven we see) but hardly remains focused. Because Clooney wants to include every story imaginable, he breezes through things like character development (personalities are established mainly by casting here, not the script) and even some of the story, especially early on, when the Monuments Men scatter among Europe with no clear objective.
Further, the movie feels episodic in its attempt to dramatize a number of anecdotes and asides that only slow the progress toward the resolution. This robs the movie of any forward momentum; it takes diversions that, while interesting historically, are unnecessary cinematically and our interest goes in fits and starts. A good movie with a large cast and multiple storylines can operate like a train station with all trains leaving smoothly on numerous tracks. The Monuments Men is one train on one track with several engines, all of them lurching and bumping into each other. Clooney could have focused the story considerably just by cutting a few of the several big speeches about the importance of art that grind the story to a halt every twenty minutes or so.
That’s the message the movie hammers home and it’s a good message, even if it’s overdone. The best parts of the movie, besides its relaying of fascinating facts, is its audacity to be a Hollywood movie that spends much of its time discussing fine art. It also raises an interesting moral conundrum (although too subtly for my taste), one that questions whether art is more valuable than human lives. When it’s working, the movie acts as a mirror to Saving Private Ryan (1998), in which the question was asked if whether one soldier’s life is worth the risk of many others. In that movie, the mission was foisted upon the reluctant troops and their sense of duty was what kept them in line. Here, the Monuments Men invented the mission themselves, out of a sense of history, and they go from valuing their lives more than the mission to sacrificing everything for the work of men they’ve never met or who have been dead for centuries. Should they? The movie clearly argues they should and I’d personally agree with them, and much of the satisfaction of the movie is when they find a valuable piece and keep it from ruin at the hands of the Germans (and later, the Russians).
Clooney does something visually that I strongly responded to: He often shoots his Monuments Men–out-of-shape, effete intellectuals–in a way that emphasizes their wedding rings. These are middle-aged men with children and families, needlessly risking their lives in a contest that is effectively over just to save pieces that many of them have only interacted with as pictures, pictures that will still exist no matter what happens to the originals (Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, because of the Nazis, exists only in pictures now). Their devotion is inspiring.
Less inspiring is much of the rest of the storytelling, which wants to be all-inclusive and therefore comes off as unfocused. The largest casualty of this is Cate Blanchett, who plays a French spy who took records of all the art the Nazis took from Paris and where they sent it. She begins a relationship with Damon’s character that is poorly defined and rushed so that it never works. There is also an expatriate German Jew in the group, played by Dimitri Leonidas, who is meant to represent the righteousness of America’s defense of European Jewry, furthered by the movie’s references to the fact that many of the continent’s greatest pre-war collectors were Jewish. However, raising this issue, especially in a movie that weighs the arguments of art and lives, also reminds us that the U.S. military did more to save van Eycks than it did to stop or limit the Holocaust. In Clooney’s desire to keep all the plates in the air, he forgets to get many of them off the ground.
I enjoy Clooney’s fealty to history, to detail and to the message, but at times that fealty undercuts his ability as a storyteller. Each time the movie stops to have a sermon about the importance of art, I feel like he’s needlessly preaching to the choir that already agrees. How do I know that? This is a movie in which people die, some of them people we are designed to care about. I watched their deaths in a silent theater. When the Nazis turned flame throwers onto a stack of paintings, the audience gasped.