Seen: At the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.
Gathering together a bunch of famous (white, male) faces and giving them World War II uniforms, George Clooney made a movie for his acting buddies and called it The Monuments Men. Vaguely based on fact but massively oversimplified and dramatized, the film follows a group of men drafted into the US army with the mission of saving artworks and historical buildings in danger of theft or destruction while the war rages in Europe. They travel around France, Belgium, and Germany attempting to track down works that the Nazis have stolen, as well as preemptively protect works that might be targeted. You see, Hitler hates art so much he wants to have it all for himself, but thank goodness George Clooney is there to save “our” culture, which is really what we’re fighting for, so it’s important even if no one else thinks so. Some of his friends die (there is a war on, after all) and everyone is sad, but in the end they uncover a lot of lost art and (spoiler alert) beat the Nazis, so it’s not in vain.
I know I’m not actually the audience for this film, I know too much about the subject. This is a film for people who aren’t really too knowledgeable about art and WWII, and want to learn about it while also being entertained, and who probably like looking at George Clooney and Matt Damon. And that’s fine, I get it. I’m always happy when a mainstream movie about art history comes out, because I think it’s a great way to reach a wide audience, including people who might not usually be interested in art but may find a new passion for it through the movie experience. I also love this time period, there are so many fascinating stories and figures involving World War II, so much that went on aside from battles and Nazi rallies. All those lesser-known heroes often have unexpected adventures, and I naturally like the art-related ones the best. The experience of the Monuments Men and related figures are genuinely fascinating, often uplifting, and significant. Instead of dealing with straightforward history, however, Clooney has taking the basic concepts and individuals and smushed them all together to create one of the most cliche-ridden wartime dramas I’ve ever seen.
Riddled with overlong, over-the-top voice-overs and never quite settling on a tone, The Monuments Men is basically any over-dramatized movie about a war, but there are a few more shots of paintings. The script hits every expected beat, every character is a just a composite of recognizable tropes, most of the dialogue doesn’t really mean anything- just phrases like “protect our culture” and “important” and “good men” and “fuck the Germans.” I didn’t really care about any of these people, even though I like most of the cast. It just felt like no one was trying very hard, they just sort of threw in their respective one-liners and receded into the white-and-tan background. Some scenes are funny- the interactions between Bob Balaban and Bill Murray, who are inexplicable frenemies, stand out- and some are manipulatively tragic, but it’s only the few actual historical points that really stand out. The discovery of Nazi treasure troves buried in underground mines, Hitler’s model of his planned major cultural center in his hometown of Linz, and the inspirational dedication of French museum assistant Claire Simone (played by lone female cast member Cate Blanchett, based on the real-life Rose Valland, who should just get her own movie really)… these are the moments I sat up and noticed, not anything that was character-driven.
The biggest failing of this movie, however, isn’t its cut-and-paste approach to filmmaking, but rather its priorities. For a movie that presents itself as a movie about art, there isn’t all that much art. And for all of Clooney’s melodramatic speech-making about how saving “our” culture is so important (by “our,” I’m assuming he means Western Europe? Especially all the white dudes of that region?), he never really communicates why this stuff is so important. The characters are meant to be people in the arts- architects, artists, art historians, curators- but few of them actually talk about art, or their part in it. The only time anyone seems to even be affected by a work is when Hugh Bonneville sees Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child in Bruges, but the work itself quickly turns into a plot device so Clooney can go on with his heavy-handed storytelling. People keep asking, why are we prioritizing these artworks over human lives? Why should cultural artifacts be given any kind of notice in this massive global conflict? Who cares?
Well, we know Clooney and his friends care, and we know we should care, but we have no idea why. The majesty of these artworks, their fragility, their eccentric creators, the unexplainable emotional gut-punch that can come with simply looking upon something so singularly beautiful: this is never expressed on film. And that’s a real shame. Films about art should be making it accessible to more people, and should help audiences experience its unique effects and relevant context. The works discussed and sought after are so interesting and inspiring in themselves, as are the actual stories of the Monuments Men (and co.), that I wish Clooney had dedicated his efforts to sharing them, instead of throwing all these cliches into a movie blender, putting it all to hilariously banal music, and gathering together all his famous friends. It is not a terrible film, and in fact I found parts of it exciting and fun, but it’s so unexceptional, so bland. Nothing like the real thing.
And seriously, can we get a Rose Valland movie already? Jeez.
Pair This Movie With: Honestly, if you want to know about the intertwined histories of art and World War II, just read The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas, which also has a documentary film version. I haven’t read The Monuments Men book but that’s probably good, too, just less extensive. And Rose Valland wrote a book about her experiences, but I’m not sure if it’s been translated into English.by