Review: THE MONUMENTS MEN, Wartime Patriotism Done Right (Or Left)

"That belongs in a museum!!" 

"So do you!" 

That, of course, is an early stretch of dialogue from 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In it, Dr. Jones is battling a posh and jerky villain who's apparently pretty quick with a comeback. They both want the Cross of Coronado, with Jones stormily barking out the first line, about how the precious relic belongs in a museum as opposed to belonging in the hands of a self-important thug. 

The film takes place in 1938, just before World War II would change everything, everywhere. Perhaps that's a large part of the reason they both overlook consideration that sometimes, maybe it's best not to let such a piece of cultural religious art end up in just any museum, especially if that museum belongs to a self-important thug. Particularly one of the most self-important thugs of the twentieth century. 

In director/producer/writer/actor George Clooney's new film, The Monuments Men, (which is almost as good as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) a ragtag group of aging art experts is assembled late in WWII as U.S. military personal responsible for recovering and reclaiming some of Europe's finest pieces of art, all in the interest of returning them to their home countries, and out of Hitler's planned Fuhrer Museum - a frightening behemoth structure planned for Berlin. It's true that throughout the course of the war, the nazi's spent considerable time and effort swiping much of the greatest art ever created in Europe and elsewhere, with this museum being the intended final destination. 

Clooney's character, the well-spoken Frank Stokes, must convince U.S. military top brass that recovering and returning these works to their proper homes is vitally in league with everything they're fighting for. The film makes a good and strong case, but typical of America, the importance of the Arts is the first thing to be questioned in terms of true importance. In this case, the cost of Stokes' proposal is quite likely the highest possible: Human lives. Even Stokes himself at first questions it on some level, telling his newly assembled crew of art and architectural experts that no piece of art is worth their lives. This leads to the primary question of The Monuments Men: Can art truly be worth dying for??  A toughie, to be sure.

To balance out all that seriousness, Clooney has cast the members of this team with a respectable cadre of beloved aging actors. This is likely for at least two reasons, the first being that it reflects the reality of the true story. The second follows the first, in that this little-told tale of the cultural value of old foreign paintings and statues, mixed with good ol' American patriotism is the perfect vehicle for Clooney to work with his friends, all of whom can keep up with the sharp quipster humor the actor/director is known for while also being proven commodities in terms of being able to handle the serious side of it all on screen. 

Even Bill Murray, one of few newcomers to the Clooney crew (although they worked together in The Fantastic Mr. Fox), fits in just fine (although strictly speaking, this is far more of an acting job for him than than a "Bill Murray role") - even if he might've contactually stated that he not be a part of the quick basic training sequence, as not to unintentionally evoke Stripes. If Murray was there, it was a blink-or-you'll-miss-it moment, and I blinked. 

Other cast members include Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett in the traditionally obligatory war film female role. This cast does in fact belong in a museum - meant in the best way possible. Also great are the striking time & place production design by James D. Bissell, as well as the appropriately dialed-back cinematography of Phedon Papamichal. Their efforts make The Monuments Men look and feel as close to an old American Hollywood WWII film that were made today. No flashiness or tricks, just straight forward filmmaking in a great way. Clooney's directed films have consistently boasted these qualities. (Most notably, see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck.) 

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Not so effective is Alexandre Desplat's bugle-infested score, which is dancing on the tail of "Mickey Mousing", and the tonally challenged screenplay, by Clooney and Heslov. The Monuments Men (based on a book by Robert M. Edsel & Bret Witter), despite being quite well directed in every other sense, misses the target when it comes to balancing the sophisticated chuckle-earning Clooney humor with the unavoidable wartime seriousness. 

Yet the characters that matter succeed at being likable, every last one of them; although the funny bits work much better in the film's trailer than in the movie proper. These negative observations aren't deal-breakers in the overall sense, but merely strikes against it enough to keep it off any 2014 Best Of lists, or for that matter the current Oscar race, which it was intentionally pushed out of by it's releasing studios. (The difficult tonal problems being a prime citation.) 

Additionally, the editing is such is that The Monuments Men starts out kind of rough, and never ultimately succeeds at gelling as a consummate whole as opposed to an arrangement of good parts. That said, one is thankful that the "getting the team assembled" and "basic training" sequences that would ordinarily eat up twenty minutes each in most other films are here compressed into the opening credits and just beyond. 

Clooney and filmmaking partner Grant Heslov have successfully made what some would consider a "liberal cause" film (i.e., the importance of the Arts) in a sub-genre (the WWII film) with heavy conservative ties. (Although there's no good reason for either political delineation to be true. Art and God/country/apple pie can and should be able to sit together. They simply and shortsightedly choose not to.) This Nazi-fighting flag waving film is stealth-fully making an argument in favor of government and personal acceptance of the importance of the Arts as vital cultural heritage, worthy of our appreciation, our value, and yes, our money. Whether the audience that such an old fashioned style WWII film would ordinarily appeal to will take to being propagandized to by these alleged "limousine liberals", we'll know soon enough. 

In the meantime, if Hollywood itself were to ever be invaded by self-important art-thieving thugs, The Monuments Men would likely not make the cut to be stolen. (But for what's it's worth, neither would Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) Clooney's good but not great latest film may not belong in a museum, but it does however make its point honorably, thoughtfully and patriotically. And it entertains with a genuinely light touch (as far as war films should go) in the process.

The Monuments Men begins its international theatrical run in North America on Friday, February 7.
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  • Nathan Stuart

    John Goodman and Bill Murray have me sold on this.

  • darrenjh

    I'm not sure this sentence makes sense.

    'Whether the audience that such an old fashioned style WWII film would ordinarily appeal to will take to being propagandized to by these alleged "limousine liberals", we'll know soon enough.'

    Based on the preview, which is all I've seen, I don't think I would feel comfortable watching this. In a fictional setting, maybe, but not in the context of a war like this particular one. I'm always extremely uncomfortable when movies like this are made that argue for the worth of art over life. I mean, you're willing to bomb the crap out of a country, destroy thousands of lives like they are nothing, but at least you've got a painting to show for it? I just find it nihilistic. Did saving this art save any lives?

  • cinesimonj

    Oh right - I didn't realize the film was just an idea, and not a true story. Thanks for that! Oh - does laughing save lives? While it's happening? Of course the only thing that saves lives is a patriotic grunt and a gun. Anything other than that is apparently not worth considering.
    And yes - the sentence makes sense. It's taking the piss of the simplistic and brainless conservatives who love a good war film, but like to think of actors in a child-like, cliched manner. Given you think that art is just for prettiness' sake, I wonder if you're one of them.
    And clearly you haven't bothered watching the film - it doesn't "argue for" anything. It's a true story, kiddo. Therefore, I guess, it might argue that reality happened.

  • darrenjh

    What are you on about?

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