The Monuments Men

What is the value of art? It doesn’t save lives, at least not directly. It doesn’t feed anyone, nor does it cure illness. Making things pretty or simply allowing people to agreeably pass their hours watching an entertaining play or movie or listening to music doesn’t seem like an essential contribution to the serious business of survival. And yet we’ve been doing it for millennia, so there must be something in our natures that drives us to create. Art is not how we live but it may be why we live.
The question that The Monuments Men seeks to answer is: Is preserving the art that we’ve created worth lives.
This movie is based on a real story. Near the end of World War II when our troops were invading German soil, FDR approved the creation of a group of experts in various artistic disciplines who would advise the allied commanders which cultural treasures were in danger of destruction. These were the people who told them not to bomb certain cathedrals or other landmarks, even if doing so would have saved the lives of allied soldiers.
Their mission soon expanded to trying to save as much of the art that the Nazis had plundered at the beginning of the war as they could. The Nazis not only threatened lives and governments, they also attacked western culture, trying to either warp it to their own ends or to eradicate it when it contradicted their dogma. They sought to control the way we create and thus the way we think and what we believe.
Heading the effort in the movie is Frank Stokes, played by director and co-writer with Grant Heslov, George Clooney. He assembles a team of artists and academics that must go through basic training and then venture behind enemy lines to perform their mission.
Monuments Men was originally supposed to be released sometime late last year right in the middle of Oscar season. Then the opening was pushed back to February. In the movie business this is what is referred to as “not a promising sign.” Here you have a movie with George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban, set during World War II and dealing with a serious topic. It has Oscar bait written all over it. And they chose to take themselves out of competition. Obviously it didn’t come out the way they wanted it.
As usual the problem is in the script. The plot doesn’t really build and the climax just sort of happens. Also if you look at that cast, there are some pretty high powered comic actors there and their comedic talents are somewhat wasted. Oh there are some funny moments but you have a set up here that’s perfect for a fish out of water comedy. Academics and artist, some of them in their forties going through basic training and then traipsing around behind enemy lines, begging resourses from officers in the regular army who are trying to win a war. Obviously some of these men die so there is a serious component to this but the balance of tones was all wrong. George Clooney’s character makes several speeches about the importance of their mission and they are all very moving, but there are too many of them. Also the characterization is lazy. It doesn’t go much beyond giving a character one thing that defines him: Matt Damon’s bad french, Hugh Bonneville’s drinking, etc. It’s not very effective and consequently when some of them die it really isn’t very emotional.
The filmmakers pose the question: is this art worth dying for? Since they themselves are artists, their answer is hardly surprising. One could wish, however, that they’d put it a little more eloquently.

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