The latest collaboration between George Clooney and Matt Damon plays out like a mashup of Indiana Jones (or National Treasure) with splashes of Ocean’s Eleven and Saving Private Ryan. Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History gets the big screen treatment, thanks to a screenplay and direction by Clooney, who serves as the glue in this epic tale of a ragtag band of scholars-turned-soldiers who steal back Europe’s art treasures from the Nazis.
Monuments Men plays like an older movie, like the films I watched as a kid about World War II starring John Wayne (he gets a shout-out here, too!) or the unconventional soldiers like The Dirty Dozen. Clooney’s art professor-turned-lieutenant, Frank Stokes, rallies a group of friends and art experts (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman) to go over and save Europe’s most famous sculptures and paintings from the Nazis, who either want to collect it for themselves or destroy it so that no one else can have it.
Stokes also calls out of disgraced isolation the British officer, Lt. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), who ends up being the first casualty of his Monuments Men. There are several questions raised like, is a work of art worth a man’s life? But the truth is that the movie signifies our need to reflect on our history and what we’ve created, to keep culture alive. Unfortunately, there’s an inclination here to have several “mini-movies” within the movie, and the editing and flow is clunky and jumps around given the way that Stokes’ team is broken up and sent around Europe to look for different items.
Jeffries’ story is one of the most compelling. He’s lost everything thanks to his addiction: his family, his military status, his father’s respect. But Stokes sees something in him that brings him back, that gives him hope and a purpose. And at one point, at Jeffries’ insistence, Stokes even admits that pity (or compassion) has made him reach out this way. It’s a second chance story, about finding purpose, and it gets tied into what it means to die with honor…. as we recognize that dying with honor still requires dying with purpose.
Often humorous, and sometimes devastatingly on historical point (the bin full of gold teeth still lingers in my mind), Monuments Men plays like a lark, but it still includes enough realism of what happened in World War II that we’d be foolish not to learn from it. Is it a great movie? No. But it still allows us to consider the choices we make, the things we take for granted, and the way that a bunch of ordinary men became heroes in protecting what society’s best was, in the face of brutal destruction. [I would be remiss in pointing out that Cate Blanchett’s Simone may be the most heroic of them all.]
Ultimately, I’m left wondering how often we make little decisions that are just as devastating. What does it look like when we individually or corporally decide that we will keep all the good stuff for ourselves, or worse, that if we can’t have it, we will destroy it so that no one else can have it either? That’s sick! And yet, it’s not limited to the behavior or inclination of the Nazis. Humanity still struggles with behaviors inclined that way, and we will until we can recognize that this life isn’t just about us.