Home » Villains » 1 Villain » The Monuments Men •••

The Monuments Men •••

The_Monuments_Men_posterStarring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray
Director: George Clooney
Screenplay: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Action/Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: February 7, 2014
Monuments Men: Ensemble, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Military Heroes)
Nazis: System, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Military System Villains)


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time to review The Monuments Men starring George Clooney, who also wrote and directed the film.

It wasn’t a monumental film but I enjoyed myself. Let’s recap.

The year is 1944. The second world war is nearing an end as Allied troops close in on Hitler’s German forces. As European cities are being reduced to rubble, an American museum curator named Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is concerned about the safety of all the priceless works of art in Europe. These paintings and statues are at risk of being destroyed or stolen by either the Nazis or the Russians.

Stokes needs help and he knows who he wants with him. So, in a scene reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen he travels around the art community picking up six old friends (and I do mean old). Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) join Stokes along with younger men James Granger (Matt Damon) and Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin).

They are all civilians and so must endure a comical bout of basic training. Once they are on their way, they are met with resistance from men on the front lines. Stokes tries to dissuade allied commanders from bombing priceless buildings only to meet resistance in the face of saving art over saving lives.

Greg, The Monuments Men is a pretty good movie that means well. But it fell far short of what it could have been, especially given that the movie assembled such a luminary cast. In fact, that star-studded cast may have been the albatross that weighed the film down (to mix metaphors). When I see George Clooney, Bill Murray, and John Goodman on the screen, I see those actors rather than the characters they are playing. The Butler made the same mistake last year. One or two mega-stars is fine, but having superstar actors in every scene is unnecessary and distracting. Why not find some lesser known quality actors to play a few of these roles?

A second problem the movie suffers from is predictability. There is a scene in The Monuments Men where John Goodman gets shot at from a window in an abandoned building. There is tension: who could be this mystery shooter? No one should be surprised that it ends up being a child. And of course we know that the film must conclude with the men finding the prized Madonna of Bruges statue. There are other issues, too, but before I go on I want to hear you weigh in here, Greg.

I found Monuments Men to be a light (if not light hearted) World War II era film about a subject that had gone unnoticed until now – Hitler’s obsession with art. As the Germans invaded city after city, they rounded up all the art (and gold) they could find. The tension in this film is created by a deadline. With the allies closing in on Berlin, Hitler has given an order to destroy all the art rather than leave it to the Russians or Americans.

I bought into this story, Scott. I didn’t expect a lot of character acting. I was satisfied to watch the heroes in this story figure out where the stolen art was being kept and race to find it before the Germans turned it to ash. The lighter moments of the film were offset by some more dramatic moments. While there were few very high or very low points, I got the message: people come and go, but our art tells the story of civilization and it is worth our lives to protect it.

To me, that message was communicated somewhat poorly, Greg. In the middle of the movie, George Clooney’s character gives a rousing speech that says, essentially, that whereas human lives are temporary, art is forever. That sounds noble, but his speech also implies that human lives are expendable in the effort to preserve paintings – a not so noble belief. Bottom line is that characters in this movie willingly die in the service of preserving artwork, and I can (grudgingly) accept this loss of life because it was their choice. But one gets the sense that Clooney (and the movie) are telling us that any lives are worth risking to preserve artwork, including the lives of civilians who certainly aren’t freely choosing to risk themselves.

The fourth and final issue I had was that the heroes in the movie don’t grow. Good hero stories show us how heroes become transformed. But these monuments men show a selfless courage from the beginning of the movie to the very end. I have the same problem with the character of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, who also shows heroic qualities from beginning to end and never grows. Yes, the characters in The Monuments Men are heroes but we, the audience, are most satisfied when we see heroes undergo significant change and evolution. This just doesn’t happen in this film.

I didn’t get that message from the movie. I don’t recall any civilian loss of life in the efforts to save the lost art. The message I got was that these men were so committed to preserving our (combined) heritage that *they* were willing to risk, and in some cases give, their lives. It was both noble and heroic.

And the orders to save this art came from on high. Truman himself signed the orders and that makes him a hero, too. As we’ve seen before, heroes don’t always transform (themselves or others). Sometimes they perform a selfless act and that alone is enough to earn them the badge of honor. In this case, six men who had nothing to gain from their acts risked their lives for an ideal. Monuments Men did a good job of selling that ideal to me and I bought it whole.

The villains in this story are primarily the Germans and the Russians, both of whom want to steal artwork that belongs to others. The Germans especially are cast in an evil light because they prefer to destroy any priceless art that they can’t have for themselves. There are countless movies featuring Nazi Germany and Hitler as the villains, and their relentless bloodthirstiness never fails to stir us into hatred for them. But while they are effective villains in this movie, they aren’t terribly memorable or noteworthy in any way. The Monuments Men is first and foremost a film about the heroism of an ensemble of men who sacrifice themselves to improve and preserve humanity’s artistic contributions to the world. The German villains are largely window dressing whose main role is to challenge our heroes.

You’re right about that, Scott. Usually when you have an overwhelming enemy like the Nazis the director will pick one character to represent all of the evil-doers. This gives us one person to identify with as the villain. While there was one Nazi curator who ran off with a ton of art, we hardly see him after the first act. Then there was a scene where Stokes confronts a Nazi head of a concentration camp. But that was just a random bad guy. A good hero needs a good villain and Monuments Men failed to deliver.

I somewhat enjoyed The Monuments Men but was disappointed that it fell short of its potential. As I’ve noted, the film suffers from too many Hollywood legends in its cast, a tendency to be overly predictable, a somewhat confusing message about sacrificing lives for artwork, and a set of heroes who do not transform themselves during their hero journeys. The Monuments Men is a pretty good movie but certainly not a great one, and so I can only award it 3 Reels out of 5.

For reasons stated above, the heroes were clearly heroic but they didn’t inspire me with their growth as characters. Because their hero journeys were stunted, I can only give them 2 Heroes out of 5. The villains were certainly villainous — anyone who destroys priceless Picasso paintings merely because they can’t have them themselves is indeed dastardly and barbaric. But the individual villain characters are not developed at all and so the best I can do is award 2 Villains out of 5 for them.

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While I think I enjoyed Monuments Men more than you did, Scott, I give the film the same score. This was a movie that informed more than inspired and it did that fairly well. I didn’t know about Hitler’s zeal to keep the world’s art to himself. And I didn’t know about his desire to put it all into a single museum in the heart of Germany or how close we came to losing it all. I also give Monuments Men 3 out of 5 Reels.

I liked the heroes in this film but I agree they weren’t as strong as some other hero films we’ve reviewed. As you point out, there may have been too many stars in this one and not enough story to go around. There is a little bit of a redemption story for Hugh Bonneville’s character, but it seemed to be a side dish. And lest we forget the role played by Cate Blanchett as the secretary who kept an itemized list of all the art that went through her museum. The film is full of mini-heroes who just barely add up to 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And the villains: cardboard cutouts of movies gone by. Patently evil and uncaring. Dispicable in the face of their failures. There was no opposition here. I give them a blanket 1 Villain out of 5.

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