Everything says this film should be a winner – A-list cast, legendary director, fascinating topic with a compelling urgency. So why does it leave you feeling so flat? Could it be that The Monuments Men don’t really know the value of what they’re trying to save?
The Monuments Men chronicles the efforts of a real unit set up by the Allies during World War Two – the ‘Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program’ – designed to limit the cultural devastation of the Nazi war machine. Under Hitler’s instructions German officers were confiscating the art treasures across Europe for the benefit of the Third Reich. Enter George Clooney as Lieutenant Frank Stokes who convinces President Roosevelt to preserve Europe’s cultural history before both sides blast it to bits:
“You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for.”
Given the government’s nod, Stokes heads off to hand-pick an elite team of art and architecture historians – Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman etc. – who will brave everything for the sake of Rembrandt, Monet and Michelangelo. Of course this is a Hollywood take on history so it’s not surprising the efforts of several hundred scholars brought together by a British initiative is reduced to a US idea involving five Americans and two token English and French officers – both of whom die tragically. There’s also a lot more romance courtesy of Cate Blanchett (a museum curator’s whose brother is murdered by the Nazis) and dodging the SS than actually occurred. But it’s also true that men did die tracking down and preserving priceless art treasures. Thanks to their assistance tens of thousands of paintings, sculptures and pieces of architecture survived the scourge of modern war.
So, with all that natural drama, why is The Monuments Men such a bland film?
Certainly one of the major problems is its meandering storyline, spread over too many heroes with too little emotional attachment for the audience. There are numerous scenes manufactured to draw out poignant responses but it’s hard to get worked up because we hardly know the people suffering. There are even too many villains to keep track of. Besides this, half the tension is swallowed up in melodrama. The other half is generated by allied troops refusing to support the Monuments Men but without any real inconvenience. The overall feeling is of a jaunty outing that aims for The Dirty Dozen but lacks enough comedy or drama to keep it interesting.
Personally, though, the most disappointing feature of The Monuments Men is its solid determination to separate the art from what the artists are trying to portray. The two most important pieces for the film are Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and the Ghent altarpiece, described in hushed tones as, “…the defining piece of the Catholic Church.” Yet the true value of these works is not in their creators but in the way they close the distance between us and their remarkable subjects. The first depicts the birth of Christ, the second his crucifixion. Of course The Monuments Men misses the point altogether, reveling in the signposts rather than what they’re pointing to. When a priest asks one of the heroes whose mission has brought him to their church, “Are you Catholic?” all he can say is, “I am tonight.” Devoid of inspiration, it’s no wonder this film is also uninspiring.
Release Date: March 13