Is It Cool?: Excellence in Filmmaking
Co-written, directed, produced by, and starring George Clooney (whew!), this film centers around a little-known true story of a specialized unit in the Allied Forces of WWII affectionately called The Monuments Men (though officially called The Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives Program). The screenplay was based on a book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter and follows an unlikely “band of brothers.”
The men are out of shape, over the hill, alcoholic, or otherwise not what the audience typically pictures when the word “hero” is used. The men are also brilliant art historians, curators, architects, and scholars who understand the necessity of preserving human cultural achievement. These Monuments Men are tasked with attempting to protect significant works of art and architecture in Europe as well as recovering stolen and looted art.
The stakes are high to begin with, particularly since these men did not appear to be given much (if any) logistical support and were apparently seen as a nuisance by Allied commanders in the European Theater of WWII. Racing against time, these men rise to the challenge and succeed beyond expectations. Also featured is the no-nonsense Claire Simone (based on real-life heroine Rose Valland, a lady about whom I am eager to learn more).
The Monuments Men boasts an incredible cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and many other famous faces). The acting is engaging, but with this all-star ensemble that is to be expected. The movie is awkwardly paced at times, though, and some of the scene shifts feel disconnected. This drifting between scenes leaves the A-List acting talent largely underutilized. The movie has a major pacing problem; it never truly lags, but I certainly could not say that my heart ever truly pounded with tension, either. The script is disappointingly meandering, though manages to still tell a credible story.
Making a film whose very basis is the recovery of some of the most famous and important art works in known history cannot have been an easy task. I can only imagine the painstaking attention to detail required of the entire artistic team. As an avid art lover myself, I have no complaints about the portrayal of any of the historic pieces in the film. The footage was beautifully and masterfully shot with a lot of attention paid to moody lighting which added a lot of depth and “Hollywood Shine.”
I applaud the score for its beauty but I question the use of the music in reducing any tension which might have started to build. It seemed to me that the score, while lovely, actually added to the pacing problem and lack of overall dramatic tension. As a whole, the film was a classy and polished two hours which brought an important and near-forgotten story to the mainstream though ultimately failed to deliver the kind of “wow factor” audiences would expect from this kind of story with this kind of talent.
I was concerned about exactly two things going in to this movie: that the film would be gratuitously violent and cheapen the death toll of war and also that it would be a boring art history lecture.
It pleases me greatly to report that neither of these things happened in The Monuments Men.
What’s it Saying?: Message of the Movie
THIS IS NOT A WAR MOVIE. Those who are expecting a war movie will leave the theater quite disappointed. It’s not an anti-war movie, either. In fact, WWII itself has very little to do with the kind of movie this is. Though a bit preachy and “on the nose” at times, the moral of the story here is summed up very well in a speech given by Stokes (Clooney) where he says that if you beat people down that they can get back up but if you destroy their history, their achievements, it’s as if they never existed. This theme of the importance of preserving the achievements of men and their artistic triumphs is reinforced through much of the dialogue in the film and even in the very premise. If the viewer is still unclear about this, it is driven home yet again when Stokes is debriefing the President who asks him if he feels like saving some paintings and sculptures was worth the cost of the lives of two of his men. Stokes, of course, says yes.
Art as a means of human expression is something that is honored in the Catholic faith. St. Luke is believed to have painted a portrait of The Virgin Mary and is often pictured before an easel.
The Vatican houses an extensive collection of master works as part of the Catholic Church’s ongoing commitment to cultural and historic preservation. Check out The Vatican Museum here http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html
There is also a particularly wonderful bit of dialogue where one of the Monuments Men explains to the others that when the war began, he had wanted to be a fighter pilot and somehow do his part. He has bad eyes and bad ears, and so he was unable to go. The Monuments Men unit was the only way that he could use his talents in the service of a cause he believes in. I think this is a beautiful parallel to the Body of Christ and how we each have different strengths and talents but that each has a purpose and is valuable.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Morality in the Movie
There is some cursing in the film as well as a great deal of cigarette smoking. There is nothing in the way of sexual situations or nudity. There is also very little violence. Claire very subtly propositions Matt Damon’s character at one point, but he behaves honorably and leaves. I would feel comfortable taking anyone 13 and up to see this film.
That's Right. I Said It: Reviewer Comments
Of course Clooney and Damon have good screen chemistry. The problem is, while this is definitely a heist movie, it’s no Oceans 11, and to a certain degree the Clooney/Damon bromance is out of place in The Monuments Men.
An old Burt Lancaster film called The Train (1964) is the gritty, tension filled, black and white grandpa to The Monuments Men. It’s absolutely worth a watch.
Despite all of its missteps, I’m still glad I saw this one on the Big Screen. The ticket was worth the price for sheer “prettiness.”
I’m now nerding out about this subject and will most likely spend several hours this weekend researching the REAL Monuments Men (and women!) and have, in fact, already purchased the book for my Kindle.
The Ghent altarpiece is one of the prominent works from the film. It is a stunning 15th Century example of Catholic Mysticism and Historical Symbolism. See it here in stunning 100 BILLION pixels: http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/#home
For more info on the REAL Monuments Men, Check out this website: http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/