The Monuments Men: Getting It All Artfully Wrong

Posted: February 17, 2014 in Movies

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George Clooney’s The Monuments Men is curiously artless for a movie about artists and curators recovering Western High Culture from all Nazi attempts to destroy it.  Clooney is Hollywood reigning revivalist and Renaissance man of they don’t make them like they use to cinema be it political thriller (The Ides of March), screwball romance (Leatherheads), or social commentary/warning (Good Night and Good Luck).  Here, Clooney commits the sin of treating art as a MacGuffin, a plot device thereby trashing art while trying to exult it.  The name for this kind of misfire is kitsch.   If done for a captive Germanic audience during World War II the Nazi version of The Monuments Men would play on an endless loop in Hitler’s (himself a failed artist) much desired but never built Fuhrer Museum.

The Monuments Men is loosely based on the Robert M. Edsel and Brett Witter nonfiction book.  Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have stuck close to the history while refusing to amp the drama and adventure.  The moral, philosophical question of whether art is worth fighting and killing for is raised to give some false serious intent.  Like any war movie peripheral characters will die to prove small points and move the action forward.   Bill Murray, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin exist only to play the Murray-Goodman-Dujardin character types the script demands.

The lack of thematic detail and character backstory makes Clooney seem disinterested in the art of his story.  The Monuments Men barely functions as history lesson and the drama hardly enthralls.  Saying and speaking is not engagement if there is no professional commitment or even awe at seeing a long sought object of desire.   The movie shies away from debates and having too much shop talk.  It is too gentile to even dish the latest artistic dirt. 

Almost 50 years ago John Frankenheimer made The Train, a movie starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau about a group of resistance fighters who plot to take back art that Nazis have stolen.  It was that rare combination of heist and war movie that delivered the goods.  The Monuments Men wants to be that kind of movie. Unfortunately it’s too afraid of doing the crime and fighting the battle.  

The Monuments Men gets a C+ from me.

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