Ever get to feeling like we, the American moviegoing public, went astray somewhere along the way, becoming so enamored of our own sophistication that we got too jaded to enjoy a real old-fashioned “movie movie” anymore? Nobody wants to be pegged as an uneducated lowbrow, of course; but that doesn’t mean that snarkiness always needs to rule the day onscreen, or that every camera must have a jaundiced eye or every narrative an ironic tone.
What inspires this particular grumble is the drubbing, largely undeserved, that George Clooney’s latest labor of love The Monuments Men has been receiving from the critics. Yes, the movie is perhaps a bit too earnest and preachy, a bit too disconcertingly sunny in overall tone for a story about misdeeds of the Nazis. But the generation born just after that war can still remember a time – before the unnecessity of Vietnam installed much darker lenses over our worldview – when World War II was regarded as the “good war,” characterized by real heroism and sacrifice.
American-made war movies of that period reflected that view. It was not yet regarded as intellectually dishonest, or as a trivialization of the Holocaust, to turn the camera aside from depicting the carnage of war in gruesome detail. Before Catch-22 and M.A.S.H., it was considered perfectly okay to make un-dark comedies about the war. And even dramatic films could feature jokey camaraderie, jaunty scores and upbeat conclusions that had audiences leaving the movie palaces of the day with a spring in their steps: Think of The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Great Escape. Some of the WWII epics of the ‘50s and ‘60s were actually damn good movies, even if they seem a little naïve in retrospect.
Clooney was born in 1961, at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and I’m willing to bet that this mini-Golden Age of Hollywood war moviemaking was what he had in mind when he decided to base a movie on Robert M. Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. The story itself is a compelling one: the dogged determination and remarkable successes of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the US Army. This tiny squad was authorized by FDR in 1943 to track down as much as possible of the great art that Nazi troops were looting for the Führer’s private museum, as well as to dissuade advancing Allied forces from wholesale bombing of art repositories like museums and churches.
But the movie is also clearly an hommage to the feel-good war movies of the first couple of decades following the war – the bouncy themes supplied by composer Alexandre Desplat are an immediate giveaway, as is the brightly burnished cinematography – and as such, it succeeds wonderfully. Older viewers are going to take The Monuments Men to their hearts; younger adult and teen audiences, more conditioned to expect a darker palette and much more gore in a war film, may not know what to make of its mostly cheery tone.
The high-ticket ensemble cast isn’t tasked with the greatest collective acting challenge of all time, the characters being rather sketchy and the action taking off in medias res in terms of personal histories. Matt Damon plays James Granger, the youngest of the crew of art experts, restorers and conservators recruited by Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes, to join the audacious salvage expedition. Granger apparently has been spared conscription into the military due to a heart ailment. The other Americans – Bill Murray as Richard Campbell, John Goodman as Walter Garfield and Bob Balaban as Preston Savitz – are all too old to be called up, but they’re hankering to play their part in the war effort somehow. We aren’t offered much backstory, but their collegial bickering seems to have been going on for many previous chapters. Balaban is the funniest, chafing at being the only member of the “elite” infiltration force to be assigned the rank of private.
Other bits of humor – Granger’s averred Francophone being out-of-service, Garfield’s girth getting in the way of boot camp exercises – come across as a bit forced, but still provide the shiny foil needed to set off the darker aspects of the story. Critics may complain that we don’t see enough of the human costs of Nazism; the beach at Normandy is unsettlingly cleared of all bloodstains by the time this landing party arrives, quite late in the war. But as the Monuments men work their way closer to the front, things get more dangerous: They’re assigned a German/Jewish driver/translator (Dimitri Leonidas) who had family sent to Dachau; they come under sniper fire; in time, major characters die.
A scene juxtaposing Campbell listening to a recording of Christmas greetings from his family with a hellish group effort to patch up casualties from the Battle of the Bulge is perhaps the most effective at mixing the light and dark elements of the narrative. But the scene that tugs the heart the most is one of panicked Nazis torching priceless paintings just before they flee the Allied advance.
Saving people’s cultural heritage, not saving individual people, is what this mission and this movie are about. And Clooney’s Stokes, who has to talk the feds into funding the operation in the first place, gives one too many speeches about the righteousness of their cause. We get it. Moreover, since the historical outcome is already known, there isn’t really all that much suspense in The Monuments Men, beyond the question of how long it will take Granger to convince Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) – a curator at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris, who alone knows where a lot of the stolen art has been sent – that the Americans aren’t there to take it all back home to the Met.
Yes, it’s all a bit corny, a bit square and predictable; in quite a few ways, this isn’t a movie that stands up well to 21st-century cinematic expectations. But still I got a lump in my throat whenever a long-sought treasure like the van Eycks’ Ghent altarpiece or Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna finally turned up. Call me a throwback, but I still walked out of the theatre with a smile on my face and a bounce in my stride. If the idea of a movie that’s a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Great Escape tickles your atavistic fancy, don’t let the naysayers talk you out of checking out The Monuments Men.