The Monuments Men

Posted on January 28, 2015

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A few years ago, I read Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (by Robert M. Edsel; Center Street, 2007). In my education as an ROTC cadet, I heard boasts about efforts the Army made during WWII to protect art and architecture. So I was inclined to be interested, and I really loved the book.

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Apparently, so did George Clooney, because he wrote, directed, and starred in the 2014 movie version.

Short Version

If you can read the book and see the movie, do so, in that order. If you can only do one, read the book.

 

Longer Version

Clooney is a fine filmmaker, make no mistake. The movie is well-made, with tons of great humanizing moments for the main characters and the Allied civilians they encounter.

Honestly, you should see it for the scenes with Bob Balaban and Bill Murray alone. Yes, John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville are all terrific. Murray and Balaban, however, deliver masters-level classes in drama and comedy. I found their characters the most interesting and the most human. They steal the show.

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I want to say that you should also see it because it is our story, but I can’t.

Yes, the art is critically important. It represents a monumental shift when humanity turned from superstition and darkness to science and reason. It represents a celebration of humanity, in all our form and function.

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That said, it’s entirely Northern European – except for things that were stolen during colonial empires and housed in Northern Europe. As world culture goes, it’s a fraction of the total. It’s fantastic, important, work but it’s not the only work. It’s the story of my people (who, except for a tiny sliver of First Nations blood, were all Northern Europeans), but it’s not the story of all people.

In short, it’s a really white, male, film. I’ll get to Cate Blanchett’s character, the only major female character, in a moment.

There are several reasons why, although I recommend it, I can’t reach through the computer screen and shake you until you see the movie.

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First, because I read the book first. You should, too. The reason for that is because the story is so huge, and so full of critical details, that the movie feels like skimming it. It’s a highlights reel of the book. It covers the most important stuff, but has to skip over some of the connecting tissue of personalities and events.

I don’t criticize George Clooney’s choices. He had to condense the book to get a reasonable running time, and he really does hit all the highlights. He rearranges some events and condenses some others to create a narrative flow, and he made good choices in doing so. It’s just that this movie covers several years of an immense war, and the book can actually delve into what that meant.

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Another place where Mr. Clooney didn’t succeed was drawing a parallel between Europe moving from the darkness of occupation to the light of liberation, and Europe moving from the darkness of the Middle Ages to the light of the Renaissance. You can draw that parallel yourself, but the movie doesn’t make the thematic point.

In that sense, it’s a very academic idea: This art is worth saving because some white guys decided it was worth saving. It would have been more visceral with a stronger theme, and visceral hooks an audience.

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Speaking of which, the movie glosses over what was taken besides art. At one point, a Frenchwoman named Claire Simone (more on her in a moment) points out to James Granger (Matt Damon) that what’s he is looking at, in a vast warehouse, is people’s lives. Not until the end of the movie, when Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is debriefing President Roosevelt, he rattles off some figures about the Nazis taking trolleys, Bibles, Torahs, and more. It’s not enough to make a younger audience understand the horrific scale of the thefts, and the near-loss of an entire culture.

One of the people who suffers in the condensing is Rose Antonia Maria Valland, called Claire Simone in the movie ( and played by Cate Blanchett). In real life, she was an amazing French woman who worked for the Nazis in Paris while a member of the French Resistance. Her catalogue of 20,000 stolen works of art was instrumental in finding and returning the collections. She risked her life numerous times during the war for the sake of France.

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Yet, in the film, she’s mostly an observer, a passive pair of eyes with no agency of her own. Cate Blanchett is magnetic and powerful, and that just goes nowhere because the character doesn’t do justice to the real woman.

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Conclusion

The Monuments Men is the story of a group of older, white, guys who risked, and in some cases lost, their lives not for money or glory or each other. Most soldiers fight for the people on either side, but these men fought so that history and art could belong to everyone.

It’s a powerful idea that the book delivers well. The film is well-acted, mostly unobtrusively directed, and beautifully shot. I wanted to love it, but I only liked it.

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See it, but know that it’s ideas and ideals won’t wow you.

Did I flog the book enough?

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Posted in: Movies