The new movie “Monuments Men” is a bit of a disappointment. It is about art and about Americans in the Second World War and the cast includes Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray. So we had some reason to hope.
The idea is that half a dozen culture experts could be recruited Mission Impossible-style by Stokes (George Clooney) and sent to the continent of Europe during the last months of the war. There they would identify and save great works of art—paintings and sculptures—which the Nazis were shipping to Germany. If the Germans lost the war or Hitler died, the faithful were supposed to destroy the art.
The story concept has promise. And some of the not good details of the film may have been required by its makers’ desire to reproduce history, though in other places the script doesn’t seem interested in being historic at all. Our heroes are middle-aged and older. They don’t seem to be in good enough shape to get through basic training—one of them is played by John Goodman, for example. And they have a lot of hair, including mustaches and beards.
Nevertheless they are shunted through P.T. and are assigned ranks, and then they and their orders are never treated as if they were the least bit military at any other time in the film. But maybe that’s OK, because it may help explain why they seem to be surprisingly ineffective at saving any art.
They split up, and we get brief scenes from each of their fronts, all of them intercut. Also included in the stir fry is an occasional tidbit from the advancing Soviet army’s art-grabbing unit, news stories, and events in the life of Parisian Claire (Blanchett, in her best Faye Dunaway manner). She’s been working for a German general who has assembled art, much of it belonging to Jews, which he then had put in a train headed for storage in mines back in the fatherland.
Claire has kept a ledger of all the paintings and sculptures going out of Paris. Granger (Matt Damon) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is sent to the city of light to find out what she knows. She is skeptical, though. Will he simply grab French art and send it back to his institution? He must win her trust, and the movie insists that he does, although it never shows how he manages it.
Meanwhile, back at the front, the other guys find a Madonna statue and one of them, a former drunk, tries ineffectually to keep the enemy from taking it. He’s killed. This later sets up an odd bit of philosophizing (by Clooney, who is also the film’s director and co-screenplay writer) about whether art is worth the sacrifice of human life.
Writer Clooney, who favors the grimace-forcing expression “tasked with,” hasn’t written anyone a good speech for this film. “Pacific Rim,” a 2013 sci fi movie, includes a rousing sentiment: “Today we are canceling the apocalypse.” That’s more eloquence in one line than the entire script of “Monuments Men” includes, though Clooney has given himself a few philosophic moments when a good “For he that fights with me this day will be my brother” would seem fitting.
There isn’t really much plot here, either. Each of the separate stories has its own targets, most of them poorly expressed. The structure suggests that what we’re really supposed to be hoping for is that the boys will find the Ghent altarpiece and that Madonna before the Ruskies move in to take over the area where the art is hidden. But it isn’t until the end of the movie that we figure out what it was supposed to be about.
In the last few months, a big collection of art, much of it supposedly stolen by the Nazis, has been discovered in an apartment not far from the seat of German government. This again raises all sorts of philosophic questions about ownership and history. Should the British Museum have to return the Elgin Marbles, statuary from the Parthenon, to Greece? And so on. Interesting questions. Difficult ones.
Well, one doesn’t expect Hollywood movies to help us with complex issues. But we should be able to expect stories that make progress, that solve problems and show the characters achieving something. We have tacitly tasked films with these jobs. I’m not sure “Monuments Men” gets any of them accomplished.