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Movie Review: Monuments Men

Just got back from seeing Monuments Men and still processing my feels. I haven't read the book but have read articles on the topic over the years, so I'd really need to check to see how much of the film was given the "Hollywood narrative" over the facts. The question asked in the film frequently, "Is art worth lives" is a great one, and of course the film answers "Obviously." I start here because when I worked with rare books my boss told me on the first day that my life and those of my coworkers was worth more than the materials we worked with, and to be mindful of that if it ever came to it. It didn't, but it is the question you have to ask yourself: What is life balanced with history?

To be fair, Clooney does his damnedest to try to show the value of art in wartime. It's a WW2 movie, based on real events, so we know how things come out from 1943-45. (Note: It is a WW2 film, but a fairly clean one. When the characters arrive on Normandy Beach after the invasion the sand is rather spotless. I am given to understand that, historically speaking, that wasn't the case. But I guess they needed that PG-13 rating.) Glancing references are made to the Holocaust with the expectation that the audience knows enough to fill in what the characters don't know. For instance, a minor character is a German-born Jewish American soldier who mentions that growing up he wasn't allowed into a museum to see Rembrandt's self-portrait. He later mentions that his grandfather was sent to Dachau, and Clooney's character comfortingly says, "Hopefully you'll see him again soon." Which of course--yeah. Dramatic irony, this is not the best way to use it? Later Damon's character finds a portrait that he takes back to the empty apartment where it had belonged; Cate Blanchett tells him, "You know they are not coming back? They are all gone," and he replies, "My job is to return art. This is where I can start." This is a bittersweet scene, and one of the more perfect ones of the film.

The seven Monuments Men aren't traditional soldiers in the narrative; they are all art curators, professors, and architects who signed on to the job to save art but were kept out of the war because of age and health. There is a brief training scene for some of them for humorous purposes which--I felt uncomfortable about. And a couple of the characters do very stupid--if human--things that get them into trouble later on, but it was like, "Have you NO common sense at all?!" I'd be curious to see if this was part of the real story or just the adaptation.

All the principals were great of course, though they under-used Cate Blanchette I think. John Goodman's character was very hammy. Bill Murray had some really great moments, esp serious ones. Seeing Matt Damon with gray in his hair makes me inexplicably sad, though; I guess he's just always going to be the beautiful boy from Dogma to me.

I wish they had taken a little more trouble at the end to tie the film in with contemporary efforts. All they needed was a few sentences at the end, come on. Instead we have a series of archival photos of the real men with the real art to close the narrative, as it to say, "Good job, team." The Monuments Men were a specific group in WW2, yes, but--look at the work of the modern curators in Iraq to save their historical artifacts and art from American soldiers, look at the Arab Spring in Egypt where citizens were camped out to protect their museums. Saving art and culture isn't an American occupation, it is a world occupation that continues today.


( 7 comments — Add your .02 )
Feb. 9th, 2014 03:25 am (UTC)
I like your review. :) I remember getting strips torn off me when we heard about the looting of museums and archaeological sites in Iraq and I said that was a shame and got told I thought art mattered more than human beings. I wish I had a list of the people who said that to me, so I could ask them about this movie.
Feb. 9th, 2014 06:04 am (UTC)
Heh. I can't help but be cynical and think that if you did ask them about this movie, they would explain that western art is more valuable than eastern art. *snort*

BTW, in thinking about it more, I think there was some more subtle work going on in the film. There's a scene where they find a large cache of gold in one of the mines holding stolen art, and they open up a barrel filled with gold fillings. A human life = art itself; stolen, its existence dependent on memory and recognition.
Feb. 9th, 2014 03:38 am (UTC)
I haven't seen it yet, but I want to. I've heard Clooney hammers home the point that art is important, which yes, it is, but it was all for dramatic effect. And, it doesn't reflect how many women were truly involved, which were numerous, and this movie highlights one.

Still, it's cool that the academics get a moment for playing this role during the war years
Feb. 9th, 2014 06:02 am (UTC)
Yeah, the women issue was rather painful. Exactly ONE woman, and as much as I love Cate Blanchett, they did not give her much to do at all!
Feb. 9th, 2014 06:21 am (UTC)
I thought the film was quite a big disappointment.

I mean, I definitely appreciate the sentiment, but you would think a film about the importance of art would aspire to be art. Instead, we get a series of scenes that barely holds together, the thinnest of dramatic throughlines, tones that range from goofy comedy to tear-jerking war flick, and no characterization. Plus, all of the principles were underused, not just Blanchette. If anything, I thought they made better use of her, because she had the most complex character and was one of the three or so who had any scenes with dramatic weight (she, Murray, and to a lesser extent Damon). The film was most interesting when she was on the screen.

I also get tired of us movies that paint Russia as the villains against our supposed moral purity. (1) they were our allies.and (2) See history.

The film was still watchable and maybe even enjoyable, but the script needed so much work. So much.
Feb. 9th, 2014 06:34 am (UTC)
Hi Ryan! :)
I've been thinking about it all night and the more I think about it the more I think they were just trying to do too much. Like, I wish Clooney could have given us a 6 episode HBO series instead of a two hour film. I wonder how much of the film was cut for rating/time/what have you, or if it was always this jumpy.

Also the more I think about it the more annoyed I get at Blanchette's character's treatment. I'm thinking particularly of the aborted seduction scene w/ Damon but also how they drop the Stahl plot halfway through--I was *really* waiting for her to have some scene with him towards the end but all we get is her seeing the bit in the newspaper.

NGL, the last scene where they leave the American flag for the Russians and the evieel Russian dude just looks grudging, I wanted to make a snark like, "You vin zees time, Americanz, but ve vill get our revenge--in Sochi!" But yes, that whole bit seemed very much a throwback to Cold War stuff, and I wasn't sure how much of that was the book vs. the adaptation.

Also, I *loved* the scene where Murray and the other guy just sit down with that awol German soldier. I kept waiting for them to bring that guy back sometime but they didn't. There were a number of little things like that where they introduced something and just let it hang, no narrative closure at all.

All that said, the more I think about it, as I said to browngirl above, the more I think they were trying to get at the idea of destroying art is like destroying human lives--which is a beautiful idea but just not gotten across that well.
Feb. 9th, 2014 06:22 am (UTC)
Meant to leave my name to ^^^
Ryan N
( 7 comments — Add your .02 )

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