Nazis bad. Art good.
That didn’t take long.
George Clooney’s new film, The Monuments Film is one of those movies that critics tend to dislike, with a low Rotten Tomatoes score and a December “Oscar buzz!” release date pushed back to the doldrums of January. I thought it didn’t deserve so glib a dismissal. It’s certainly not a great film. It’s an agreeable enough stroll through art and history and the last months of World War II. Leisurely paced, with familiar actors doing familiar schtick, I felt like I was visiting some old friends, had a nice dinner and some pleasant conversation, and was happy enough to sit through their slide show of vacation photos of all the museums they visited last time they were in Europe.
Written and directed (and starring) George Clooney, The Monuments Men is about a group of art historians who were drafted into the US Army at the tail end of the Second World War, and tasked with finding, saving, and if possible returning works of art stolen by the Nazis. An opening credit reads ‘based on a true story,’ and in this case, I rather think it was. The film is loosely plotted and episodic enough to make me think that it was in fact based on an actual memoir. I would call it “Stuff that happened to me and my friends while we were looking for all the art Hitler stole.” Most of the incidents of the film don’t really advance any particular plot. The historians find a German map, realize that the cities marked on it are all close to mineral mines, and figure out that the Nazis are hiding the art in those mines. That takes up maybe five minutes of the movie.
The rest of the movie is about other events basically unconnected to that story. So Bob Balaban wanders off from camp, taking a pee break, and an armed German soldier holds him up. Bill Murray sees them, and a standoff ensues. The soldier speaks no English–they speak no German. Bill Murray offers the kid a cigarette. Everyone relaxes. The kid wanders away. Or, another scene, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are pinned down by a sniper. They’re not soldiers, but sort of improvise a way to capture him; when they do, it’s a twelve year old kid. Or, another scene, Matt Damon has sort of a romantic-ish date with art curator Cate Blanchett, at the end of which she gives him her meticulous records of the art that was in the museum she ran, and who it all belonged to. Or, another scene, Goodman and Dujardin, hopelessly lost, see a beautiful horse grazing in a meadow. They stop to admire it, and then notice German and American soldiers hiding in the woods. They make it back to their jeep, but not before getting caught in a cross-fire. Dujardin is wounded, and bleeds out, dies, because Goodman, lost, can’t find a field hospital.
That’s most of the movie, those sorts of ‘stuff that happens when art historians pretend to be soldiers’ scenes. Hugh Bonneville is ‘Donald Jeffries,’ one of the historians, a disgraced alcoholic Brit who sees this assignment as offering him some personal redemption. But he never seems like a disgraced alcoholic; he’s Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey, and nothing in his performance suggests anything else. And when he’s killed, it’s a fumbly, awkward kind of death; the kind of death you’d expect when an art historian trades shots with a professional soldier. Or if Lord Grantham opened fire on an SS officer.
It also isn’t true. Donald Jeffries is a fictional character, but the real Army unit tasked with saving Europe’s art did include a British art historian, who was one of the two of the unit who was killed. The real bloke, Ronald Balfour, isn’t mentioned in the film, and our British friends aren’t happy about it. Balfour was an interesting guy; a member of the Cambridge club, The Apostles, part of the Bloomsbury circle, friends with E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes. And, quite probably, gay. It’s hard for me to imagine that George Clooney would have deliberately omitted Balfour from his screenplay for that reason. Balfour was killed by a shell fragment–more likely, Clooney wanted a more dramatic death for his British member of the team.
But if so, it was miscalculated. ‘Donald Jeffries’ isn’t a very interesting character in the film, and although I adore Hugh Bonneville, he doesn’t bring much pizazz to the party. But then, no one does. Matt Damon’s one of my favorite actors, but mostly in this film he sort does-and-doesn’t romance Cate Blanchett, then steps on a landmine, which sort of fizzles instead of explode. (Like the rest of the movie). Jean Dujardin plays probably the most charismatic character in the movie. Can’t have that: his character dies half-way through. In fact, the only non-movie-star in the movie was, I thought, the most interesting character in it: Dimitri Leonidas plays Sam Epstein, a kid from New Jersey who was raised in Germany, speaks fluent German, and is the translator for the group. He was terrific in the part, and his character makes most of the major discoveries in the film, despite having way fewer lines and much less screen time than all his co-stars.
It’s a movie that wants to make some profound statements about art, and the value of art, and what art says about human beings as a species, and why we need to save and preserve the greatest artifacts of our culture. Would you die to save the Mona Lisa? Would you, personally, die, to save Michelangelo’s David? And I think, no, I wouldn’t. But to save the only surviving print of Guernica? To save the last copy ever of Hamlet? To save the Beatles Abbey Road from extinction? Maybe. Except . . . are any of those works actually in danger of extinction? I don’t need to fly to Florence to see the Pieta; not anymore. And wasn’t Picasso used recently to sell cars?
Honestly, I think this movie exists because George Clooney read about this crew of art historians, thought the story was fascinating, and figured that he may as well make a movie about them, since no one else seemed to be stepping up to do it. And movies mean publicity, and now more people have heard of their work than would have otherwise. So that’s all good. As I say, I quite enjoyed The Monuments Men. While fervently wishing it were better than it is. But isn’t what we usually think when we leave a museum?