This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
Back in my undergraduate years, I took two semesters of art history. It fostered in me a love for the subject, and when I learned that a biopic about the MFAA, or the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program, was in the works, I was over the moon. “The Monuments Men” presents itself as an interesting marriage of art history and war history, a creative endeavour in which American actor and charismatic gentleman George Clooney directed, produced, and starred. Unsurprisingly, he brings a lot of his own into a part of history that many connect with — some to a large degree. Perhaps in that fact alone, I should have known that I would enter the cinema giddy with excitement, and leave two hours later, feeling a little lukewarm about the whole thing.
The film opens inside the Saint Bavo Cathedral‘s Joost Vijd chapel. Men work to remove Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) from the altar, each enduring a sense of urgency. They load the paintings into a truck, and another gives them clothes to use on their southbound escape to Brussels along with information that the Germans are to arrive from the east. After a couple words of blessing, it is then revealed the ones involved in the moving of these works are priests. The vehicle drives away quickly from the premises, a scene that bears a disturbing resemblance to the hiding scene of “The Sound of Music”. It would be revealed later that en route to the destination, the two religious are killed by the German opposition, and the art stolen.
In the occupied French capital, Claire Simone (played by Cate Blanchett), a curator, is forced to entertain Nazi officers overseeing the accumulation of stolen art for Adolf Hitler’s later-unrealised Führermuseum and the personal collections of some high-ranking Nazi officials. When asked to prepare champagne for her guest and his associate, Dr. Viktor Stahl (played by Justus von Dohnányi), Simone maintains her placid exterior. But when she retreats into the kitchen, she betrays her loyalties when she spits into goblet then instructs the charge to do the same. Unbeknownst to him, Stahl enjoys the drink, as divisions of the work are being decided. Beyond the confines of their pristine corners, the horrors of the Second World War continue to manifest.
Half a world away, Frank Stokes (played by George Clooney) makes an impassioned presentation about the state of the arts and the fragile state of much of the world’s culture to a panel, which includes the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Naturally, it meets with some misgivings, but Stokes counters with his plan of action, and manages to get the green light to jumpstart his own mission: to go into the war itself retrieve the stolen art from the hands of Nazis. With this, Stokes and British officer Donald Jeffries (played with Hugh Bonneville) assemble The Monuments Men, and key members consist of museum curator and director James Granger (played by Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (played by Bill Murray) whose introductory scene was given probably one of the best colouring work of the entire film, art dealer and director of design Jean Claude Clermont (played by the dashing Jean Dujardin), dance director Preston Savitz (played by Bob Balaban), and sculptor Walter Garfield (played by John Goodman) — with Private Sam Epstein (played by Dimitri Leonidas) following closely as a German translator.
The Monuments Men complete basic training, and the operation underway proceeds as planned. Five of them arrive at Normandy by sea, and get a preliminary look at the artwork that has already been retrieved from German hands. Granger and his terrible grasp of French, on the other hand, embark on an alternate route via Deauville to find the director of Musée National d’Art Moderne, if he is still alive. Back in Paris, Simone makes her way home, only to find out that her apartment has been broken into by Stahl. She receives the devastating news that her brother, had been killed in action. Because he is discovered to have had been part of the Maquis by the time his death is officially recorded, Stahl gives her little time to grieve. He confronts Simone about the true nature of her allegiances, and storms out, leaving her in tears. She soon learns that Stahl has taken all the items from her gallery and is planning to send them to Germany. Running out to the station, she plans to confront him, but Stahl takes shots at her while hanging off the moving train. He misses, but the anguish of seeing the dissolution of a large part of her life’s work is evident in Simone’s face. The city is liberated shortly after, but despite treading carefully between her work and her patriotism, she is mistakenly assumed to be a Nazi collaborator, and is arrested.
Meanwhile, the other members of the unit encounter conflicts of their own. Campbell and Savitz placate a young soldier with some midnight smokes, and then head to Merkers. Granger, who flies to Paris via biplane, visits Simone in prison. He fumbles over his French once more, and she eyes him distrustfully, thinking he is the American counterpart to the already disastrous art heist. Their first encounter concludes with a lot of tension, and Granger knows he has to do much more to earn her trust. Garfield and Clermont nearly take out a gun-wielding child, but later, things do not end well for one of them. In Belgium, lone ranger Jeffries lays down his life for Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child (Madonna of Bruges), protected only by a single gun and the memory of experiencing its reverent beauty as a child. When Stokes receives news of the casualties, he begins to realise that the true cost of restoring generations of life and culture is far greater than he expects.
George Clooney’s recent effort is worth watching for its collection of light moments, but despite the way film carries itself, do not expect anything substantial. “The Monuments Men” read like a war-time edition of the “Ocean’s…” franchise. It was chock-full of witty banter, A-list actors, and other tricks of the Hollywood trade — including the one pivotal scene which moves the entire theatre to the brink of tears — but despite being incredibly well-equipped, it proved itself to be neither a fitting tribute to art nor war history. Even though Clooney may not have intended this, the film may have even inadvertently gone as far as making light of the life-threatening missions taken by the actual MFAA in their collective effort to preserve chunks of history.
Sure, one could argue that cinematically portraying the assault of the world’s culture can only bring down the morale of its viewers, thus, ultimately the sales of the film. To a certain extent, that is true. Laying bare the lives of those who have suffered under the marauding hand of war as well as the many artistic pioneers behind those works, whose existence has mostly known tragedy and lack of appreciation, would not make for an uplifting 118-minute run. Considering how “The Monuments Men” has been generously marketed — aside from its beautifully designed official website, an educational microsite, a support microsite, an official Tumblr, and even an off-shoot virtual journal of curator Claire Simone, to name a few, — it is obvious there is no shortage of backing. Still, in the eyes of those looking to “The Monuments Men” as an examination of the past, it under-promised and — dare I say it — came off, instead, as a brilliant public relations move on the part of the United States. But, if that was the ultimate motive, then, touché.