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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Big Fun, Big Heart, Old Fashioned "Monuments Men"

"The Monument Men" is a fun, old-fashioned, feel good movie. I walked out of the theater inspired. The movie isn't perfect but its gifts outweigh its flaws.

"The Monument Men" tells the story of a group of art experts recruited by the US armed forces during WW II to ensure that Europe's artistic heritage was not destroyed in the war.

Hitler had been a painter before he became fuhrer. Joseph Goebbels was a novelist. Speer was an architect. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl did as much to spread Nazism as many troops. Nazis didn't just mass murder human beings. They burned books and paintings. They worked very hard to destroy "decadent" art and to elevate and appropriate art they deemed worthy. Nazis plundered and stockpiled other countries' art. Just the other day, Feburary 6, 2014, art the Nazis stole from Poland was repatriated. In January, 2014, the World Jewish Congress demanded that Germany do a better job of returning art.

There's a long tradition of World War II movies about international, all-star teams of experts uniting to achieve some goal: "The Great Escape," "The Guns of Navarone," "Kelly's Heroes," "Dirty Dozen," "The Longest Day," "A Bridge Too Far." And of course George Clooney is a veteran of the "Oceans" movies.

"The Monument Men" is a little bit WW II team movie, a little bit Oceans. The team members are shown going about their day to day lives when George Clooney shows up and signs them up. The movie is based on a real project, and it plays like the best anecdotes from that project's team members. It's a series of vignettes that aren't particularly coherently connected. Some of the vignettes were not clear to me. Why was Matt Damon suddenly flying in a biplane over Paris at night? It was a pretty scene but I didn't understand how it fit into the rest of the plot. Why was the German-Jewish translator, Sam, suddenly carrying a wounded soldier into a mobile army surgical unit? Who was that soldier? Not sure.

Other vignettes are really gripping, moving, suspenseful, and/or funny. The movie won me over with its depiction of a British art expert's heroic attempt to rescue a Michelangelo Madonna from Belgium. I cried. I was inspired.

There is a funny, scary, sickening scene where a beefy German dentist hammers away at Bill Murray's teeth with a mallet and pliers while Bob Balaban makes provocative commentary about how he bets all the Germans were innocent – not.

There's a powerful scene where Americans are invited to a German home for dinner, and discover that the paintings on the dining room walls are too good to be reproductions.

The movie is flawed. Its editing is choppy. It feels rushed. I got the sense that not enough time was devoted to cast members building bonds with each other. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are meant to be tight team members, but I saw no real chemistry between them. Not nearly enough time is devoted to fleshing out the all-star cast's characters, or to simple exposition. I'd simply like to know more about everything onscreen, from the Ghent altarpiece to Hitler's Nero decree. I would like to have seen the Nero decree's destruction of art placed into the context of the mass suicides at the end of the war. Hitler's suicide isn't even mentioned in "Monuments Men."

Sam, a GI, is recruited as a German translator. The average moviegoer might have no idea that Sam is Jewish. Sam says, "I'm from NORTH Newark." How many moviegoers know that North Newark was a Jewish neighborhood? Sam says that his grandfather in Germany was not allowed to enter a museum and joked about being barred because he was "too short." The real reason he was barred is that he was a Jew, but the movie never states that plainly.

I got the impression that Clooney was making his film for people with short attention spans who want the shallowest treatment possible of the subject matter. That's too bad, because with a little more tender loving care, this could have been a great movie rather than a good one.

Some popular culture and even academic retellings of WW II work to humanize, or even exculpate, Germans. "Monuments Men" does not. At first I thought that Sam would be the good German character – the noble "true" German who hated the Nazis from the get-go, resisted them, and was now helping the allies defeat them. But Sam turns out to be Jewish. "Monuments Men" uses the word "German" were a more German-friendly film would be careful to use the word "Nazi," thus emphasizing that not all Germans were guilty, but merely an ideology.

"Monuments Men" is unusual among recent American films in that it unapologetically and enthusiastically celebrates Western Civilization and the Christian heritage as something that utopians – in this case Nazis – tried to destroy, and that good people – among them Americans – heroically and courageously died to preserve. This is a really remarkable message. I wonder if left-wing Clooney embraced it because he saw "Monuments Men" as being about Art, not about Western Civ or the Judeo-Christian heritage. The two artworks focused on the most – the Ghent altarpiece and the Michelangelo Madonna are both overtly Christian. 

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