The Monuments Men review: saving private collections (and public art)

The Monuments Men green light George Clooney Matt Damon

MaryAnn’s quick take…
As jaunty as Jean Dujardin’s beret, but in a sincere, old-fashioned kind of way. It could almost have been rediscovered from the 1940s…
I’m “biast” (pro): love Clooney as an actor and a filmmaker; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I try to avoid hearing too much of other critics’ reactions to a film before I’ve seen it, but there was no avoiding the barrage of disappointment that came hurling over Twitter last week, as so many of my North American colleagues responded to The Monuments Men with a resounding “meh.” This was a disappointment to me, because I’d been so looking forward to this movie.

Well, now that I’ve seen it, I don’t know what the hell they’re all talking about, because this movie is fantastic.

Is it that my expectations had been so lowered that anything short of a disaster would have gotten a pass from me? I don’t think so, because I was sorta hoping for something like Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Ocean’s Eleven, and this certainly does not qualify. And yet I’m happy, because what we got pleases me even more. I wouldn’t have thunk it, but director George Clooney (The Ides of March, Good Night, and Good Luck.), who oozes snark as automatically as he breathes, has made an uncynical movie. Oh, it is as jaunty as the beret that Jean Dujardin’s (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Artist) French art teacher turned art hunter favors, but in a sincere, old-fashioned kind of way. This could almost be a movie rediscovered from the 1940s, and that’s no bad thing. It recaptures the urgent spirit of the time, the sense that everyone’s effort was needed to push back against Hitler’s total war.

This isn’t a war movie, though, not like we’re used to: it’s a detective story, a “treasure hunt,” as Hugh Bonneville’s (Twenty Twelve, Doctor Who) sole Brit on the team writes in a letter home, except “our prizes are Rembrandts and Rubens.” When Frank Stokes (Clooney) and his team of art historians, museum curators, and other experts — also including those played by Matt Damon (Elysium, Promised Land), Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson, Fantastic Mr. Fox), John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis, Monsters University), and Bob Balaban (Girl Most Likely, Howl) — arrive in Normandy after the Allied invasion, the Nazis are retreating… and they’re looting the Continent along the way, confiscating important artworks for the museum Hitler is building for himself and destroying the art Hitler doesn’t like (such as anything created by Jews, of course). We get a flip side of the typical war movie: we’re seeing the aftermath, the cleanup. The Normandy beach here is a quiet place, the battle over, and just over the dunes in the sprawling camp of Allied soldiers, they’re unloading simple white crosses from a truck. We see a Paris museum despoiled, a few empty frames left on otherwise empty walls. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating, this glimpse at what Hitler’s attempts to dismantle the history and culture of his enemies looked like — Nazis soldiers torching “degenerate” paintings made me cries tears of rage. It doesn’t bear thinking about, all the art that was lost. I cannot comprehend the mind that could conceive of this.

But Monuments Men forces us to contemplate it, even as its treasure hunters hop around Western Europe, following up on clues they hope will lead them to where all the stolen art is being hidden. Just this tiny sliver of the unfathomably enormous story of World War II is itself enormous: millions of works of art destroyed or stolen from multiple nations; real life “Monuments Men” who numbered many more than the handful we meet here, who are only loosely based on real people. But Clooney’s script, written with his frequent creative partner Grant Heslov, smartly focuses on a few pieces, and what they mean to the men who are seeking them: a marble sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary and the baby Jesus on display in a cathedral in Bruges, and the series of magnificent paintings that make up the altar in a church in Ghent. I’m an atheist about God, but art (not just movies) is my religion, and I was deeply moved by the unvarnished power Clooney found in the wartime stories of these pieces. I was even more deeply moved by the simple, elegant ways he found to connect the spirit of the historical, even academic stories of these pieces to the power of art, “important” and “unimportant,” that is around us all the time: Via Cate Blanchett’s (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Hanna) French museum worker, and how protectively close she holds her hard-won knowledge of where looted art is being hidden because she cannot believe that the Americans don’t want to take it all for themselves. Via Murray’s architect, spending Christmas 1944 in a snowy military camp with only Balaban and a bunch of anonymous GIs for company, receives the gift of a recorded Christmas song from back home.

Art isn’t a luxury. It’s a vital necessity, a comfort when we need it and a reminder of who we are. (Hitler knew that — that’s why he wanted to destroy it.) And it’s worth fighting for. The Monuments Men isn’t stuffy about it, and isn’t overly solemn about it… but it won’t brook any disagreement about it, either. It’s a very fine place for even an old-fashioned sort of movie to be.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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