Art Saves Lives: Review of ‘Monuments Men’

Starring Matt Damon's Eyebrow

Starring Matt Damon’s Eyebrow

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes (watched 2/16/14) Review: One of my Western Civilization professors at Oklahoma Baptist University was quite fond of the phrase “Art Saves Lives.” She even wore a button bearing it, arguing that art preserves and communicates man’s essence, far beyond our mortal years. She would wholeheartedly agree with the theme of The Monuments Men, that art is worth saving, sometimes even to the point of dying.

George Clooney’s latest promises a fascinating and entirely unknown-to-me chapter of World War 2, the exploits of the soldiers of the U.S.’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program, or “Monuments Men.” For the first time in history, a military force chose to try to preserve cultural artifacts rather than just destroy every single piece of evidence of the conquered or liberated. And while looting most certainly did happen at the hands of U.S. troops, the Monuments Men worked night and day to try and return thousands of stolen works of art from German stock piles to their rightful owners.

Clooney plays the creator of the MFAAP and its leader. Much like the Ocean’s flicks, he recruits his team: Matt Damon, the curator of the Met Museum in New York; Bill Murray, an architect; John Goodman, a sculptor; and art experts Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and the delightfully bespectacled Bob Balaban. This is the first of a few of the film’s fatal flaws (I’ll let you pause and savor the alliteration). This is a stellar ensemble cast, but we’re not given a chance to enjoy them together. Damon spends most of the movie in Paris with Cate Blanchett’s French curator.

The second flaw is that the story telling is virtually non-existent. We get a few vignettes that feel like they were pulled at random from a soldiers diary, and while they feel authentic, they’re not exactly related and there’s almost zero context into how these moments fit into the rest of the war.

There’s meant to be a romance of sorts between Damon and Blanchett, but it was unnecessary and was merely there because director Clooney thought we needed a romance. The others get no real material and Clooney himself is reduced an expensive narrator, to borrow a critique from Megan.

Murray and Balaban get the best scene of the entire movie when they confront a Nazi art thief with dreadful, dreadful hair. It’s a scene with clever dialogue, tension, stakes and detective work; it’s a joy to watch. It’s a shame the rest of the movie is so devoid of similar story telling. There’s a decent story to be told here, but it just doesn’t show up on screen. I wanted so, so much more. (Dujardin’s is the only character who was actually part of the MFAAP. The others are all loose amalgamation and adaptations of real men. Since Clooney went this far in penning the script, it’s even more a loss that he didn’t stretch things a little further in an effort tying everything together. After all, art doesn’t have to be photo-realistic to communicate its point.)

It’s worth noting that while the movie leads us to believe this force of seven saved all of Europe’s art on their own, the true Monuments Men numbered more than 400 and also worked in the Pacific Theater.

Art does save lives. But while Monuments Men commemorates the lives of the men who lived out that sentiment, it falls far short of saving them.

*I’ve started the rather dry book on which Monuments Men is based, though I haven’t finished it. An art history major friend from college agrees that it’s not the most exhilarating read and instead recommends The Venus Fixers.

**Monuments Men is rated PG-13, but I don’t have a clue why. There is some violence and bloodshed (this is a movie about war), but you can see far far worse in any prime time TV show.

monuments men tix

Seriously, twilight is the best time of day to go to the movies. $6 a ticket!

All that’s wonderful, but what’s the movie’s grade? I’m in a hurry here, buddy.
Megan and I discussed this at length. Giving it a 3.75 / 5 seems like splitting hairs, but it’s not as good as movies we’ve rated 4/5, nor is it as disappointing as movies we’ve given 3/5 (I’m looking at you, Ender’s Game). 3.75/5 priceless art treasures it is.

Where do I know that guy from? Jean Dujardin is basically the French George Clooney and is best known for his starring role in The Artist, a movie I still haven’t gotten around to seeing.

What is the star’s spirit animal? A horse.

What color socks are you wearing right now? Plain white gym socks. Nice and boring.

Spoiler alert! Despite having Bill Murray in uniform, this is not the long-awaited sequel to Stripes.

Megan’s Take: She loves WW2 drama and the actors, but she preferred the black-and-white documentaries currently airing on the Military Channels. (3.75/5)

Heard any good jokes lately? What’s invisible and smells like carrots? Rabbit farts.

Snacks eaten: Popcorn and Diet Pepsis (no M&Ms this time around)

Unrelated Word of the Day: Probity PROH-buh-teenoun: adherence to the highest principles and ideals : uprightness

Would the movie have been any better with the addition of Morgan Freeman as narrator? No. I’m beginning to wonder if needing a narrator is merely a sign of a weak script.


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