Better than that other movie with Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello
The Monuments Men (2014): 6 out of 10: George Clooney directs a breezy tale of the Allied troops that were in charge of making sure the Americans didn’t destroy every single piece of art while taking back Europe single-handedly.
The Good: You know that Steven Spielberg ruined World War II films for an entire generation. Movies like The Monuments Men used to be much more common before Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. The British, in particular, were rather fond of them. Thankfully, after twenty-odd years, this too severe by half World War II treatment finally seems to be passing, and we can now get back to various genres feeling at home in World War II.
The Monuments Men is a throwback to the old-fashioned war film where a bunch of chaps pull one over on the Nazis. There is a breezy, light humor to the whole affair with some sad moments sprinkled in.
The Monuments Men is also a very nice production with a top-notch cast. There is some seriously high-quality set dressing in this movie. It is one of the better-filmed representations of this time during the war in Europe.
The Bad: I praise the acting, but I have to admit that John Goodman does not look good in this movie. He seems in ill health and out of place (He is acting among Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, neither of whom are athletic specimens or spring chickens themselves.) His story is also the weakest of all the characters, which brings us to a severe structural problem the film has.
For some reason, the eight or so Monument men split up early on, and all have their adventures either by themselves or in small groups. This makes it hard to get invested in the story as a whole, as we are hopping fairly often between characters. This constant hopping around makes scenes often feel like interesting vignettes rather than part of the entire story. As a result, we often have severe tonal shifts as a sad, sentimental scene swishes over to a high farce or budding romance with barely a segue. A filmmaking technique I call meanwhile in Paris.
Another query is why does Clooney insist on making his men such freaking boy scouts in this movie? Making Matt Damon’s character an adulterer or maybe have one of the guys be racist would have gone a long way to shade these ciphers. As it is, the cast lacks any real dimension outside of the most surface tropes.
Clooney is invested in the mission as told in his tale and lessons regarding the importance of art for civilization. He also fears that the movie-going audiences’ knowledge of Italian Renaissance painters is restricted to those that were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So there is a lot of talking down to the audience and explaining the main point of the film repeatedly.
The Ugly: I have long given up on historical accuracy in movies, but here we go. The actual Monuments Men consisted of 345 men and women from 13 countries, not seven guys. Preparation started before the US even entered the war, and General Eisenhower was a major proponent. Cate Blanchett’s character is Rose Valland, the famous member of the French resistance who did thwart a lot of Nazi art stealing. If you’re curious what she did, the 1964 John Frankenheimer wartime thriller The Train is based on one of her books.
And then there is the Nero Decree that the plot of the last part of the film depends. It is as if Clooney realized that the Nazis plan of taking the art, storing it safely, and then putting it in a museum lacked a particular menace. So we have Nazis burning art and a race to save it. Unfortunately for the movie, the Nero Decree was about burning railroad terminals, not Monets, and it was never implemented by Albert Speer, anyway. (Again, the nazis destroyed quite a lot of art. They had been burning books since 1933. The movie unfortunately simplifies to the point of obfuscation.)
Additional Thoughts from a second viewing.
While we have somewhat moved past the grittiness on Saving Private Ryan, The Monuments Men still reminded me a lot of that movie. Almost in a unintentional parody kind of way. For one thing, it has a D-day landing, albeit a few weeks after Saving Private Ryan’s famous D-day landing, so a touch less exciting landing on a secured beach. Director Clooney also unwisely repeats the old man visiting with his grandchild ending from Private Ryan, which bluntly is grown worthy. And if that was not enough, Monument Men stars Private Ryan himself (Matt Damon).
The Monuments Men also accidentally seems to demonstrate that we have an awful lot of art. Now this is no way is a pro burning of art diatribe. But anyone who has visited say Italy as a tourist will quickly realise there is no fresco shortage there. Hell, in my own house I have a large Meiji Period painting of two geishas and an impressionist painting of a woman on a lake. And I am a lower middle class chap living in the states. Add on modern art, pop art, and all those motel paintings and as a civilization we are hip deep in the stuff. Why one piece of art is worth millions and another is $5 at a garage sale is a discussion for another time. But the reality the prices are held up in many cases through the power of groupthink.
Nowadays, the art Clooney’s team saved is often used as a place for billionaires to park their money like so many empty condos in Manhattan. Someday supply and demand may visit the art world. Or people will get more sense than money and will stop paying millions for an ugly picture of an unremarkable dutch merchant. (Though with the recent rise of both NFTs and “collectible” Nintendo games selling for millions, we are not going in the right direction.) Until then, buy what you like, not what you think will make you rich. You will be happier for it and won’t be stuck with an ugly Willem de Kooning painting.
In Conclusion: Overall, The Monuments Men is a pleasant experience with beautiful sets and locations and good acting. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of substance and The Monuments Men never feels confident in its audience to come to their own conclusions.
Now credit where credit is due to both director George Clooney and actress Cate Blanchett. The real life Rose Valland was not what we would call a looker. A hero who defeated the Nazis true but Cate’s mousey performance is on point. The filmmakers certainly could have gone full Frida on the character and glammed her up. (Especially since they changed her name for the movie to Claire Simone for no reason I can fathom).