The Monuments Men is perhaps only a failure in comparison to its unrealized potential. The whole way home I kept thinking, “But it’s such a great idea for a movie.”
Inspired by a true story, George Clooney’s and Grant Heslov’s screenplay focuses on a team of seven soldiers near the end of World War II charged with finding and returning stolen art.
The film begins and ends with a question: is any piece of art worth dying for?
It’s a good question, one that could be the foundation for a great movie. The Monuments Men is hampered in great part by the fact that it can only conceive of one possible answer: heck yeah! I am not saying I disagree with that answer as an abstract proposition. But compare the attitude of these soldiers with those tasked to save Private Ryan in another war movie about when we do or do not have the moral right to ask people to risk their lives, and you realize that The Monuments Men isn’t seriously exploring that question, even in hindsight, so much as invoking it.
Nobody materially affected by the mission objects…or even appears to have many qualms. The one family member we hear of and from is supportive. There may be professional soldiers (who have been fighting longer and are just on the verge of maybe going home) who don’t want to aid in the enterprise, but the film usually shows them as not being forced to do so. Thus the highest stakes, as high as they are (life and death), are never more than personal. That fact undercuts any attempts of the film to link the men’s project to some sort of greater cultural American decency that imbued why we fought. Nor is thde film’s American exceptionalism limited to Allied-Axis comparisons. The Soviets want to find the art so that they can keep it.
The Monuments Men has the misfortune of opening in some markets on the same weekend as Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust. I say “misfortune” not because any more than a trickle of viewers will pick the three and-a-half hour documentary about the last president of Theresienstadt’s Jewish council, but because the prospect of having a film about the Shoah playing in the next room could cause Monuments‘s fleeting gestures at acknowledging the extermination camps to backfire. As Charles Krauthammer notes in his essay “On Moral Equivalence,” comparisons that involve or invoke war risk trivializing the greater rather than ennobling the lesser of two virtues. Perhaps in another fifty years, were I still alive, I could see the burnt out flame of a Rothko or Richter painting amid the rubble of the World Trade Center Towers and think, “Yeah, that’s one more reason we had to kill bin Laden.” Again, though, I’m not saying one could not make a film in support of the proposition that art is among the things that can and should be prioritized more than life itself. I’m just not sure this is it. Indeed The Monuments Men presumes that answer rather than promotes it.
Even so, I didn’t hate this movie. I love art, so how could I? I did feel pride, however much I felt manipulated into it, that I grew up in a nation that could, even in one of its darker hours, spare a thought for what the dawn might look like. I was reminded by a scene between Matt Damon’s soldier (James Granger) and Cate Blanchett’s museum curator that personal ethics are the foundation of social and cultural ethics. In this, as in all other dilemmas, our soldier makes the right choice.
If I wanted someone at just one point to make a wrong choice, to be just a little selfish, a little afraid, it wasn’t so much because I despised the art they were risking their lives for but because I wanted to know that they truly cherished the lives they were risking. Nowhere was that disconnect more palpable than in a scene where Granger steps on a land mine. The art scholars and architects risk their lives to build a counter weight that is supposed to save him. That is noble. When the time comes that they have done everything they can do and he must step off, they refuse to move back to safety. At that point any tenuous sense that these were not actors but actual characters supposedly in actual situations was lost for me.
But by all means, if I’m ever in Bruges, I will make it a point to see the Madonna, and I will make an unironic prayer of thanksgiving that I didn’t have to go to Moscow to do it.