Saving Private Collections
The Olympics are going on, which always reminds of the great debt we owe to the Greeks and to Greek mythology, all of the written records of that civilization that has enriched our lives and manage, over the centuries, to still reflect and caution us, through its stories. And we couldn't thank the Greeks, if we don't, in turn, thank the Jews, who saved those written records of Greek mythology from being destroyed in the many upheavals resulting from so many transitory religious and political conflicts. Long term accomplishments can be utterly obliterated by something so blinkerdly short-sighted. History can be erased.
That, ultimately, and a bit ironically, is the point behind The Monuments Men, George Clooney's new movie, which he directed (and co-wrote with his regular collaborator Grant Heslov). In it is told the tale of the men who, during the second World War, tracked down confiscated art looted from Nazi occupations, if it could be found, in order to return it to its rightful place before the war. They did this during the war in progress.
We meet him giving a lecture to FDR about the situation of certain art pieces in Europe that have gone missing, possibly destroyed or maybe housed for the eventual Fuhrermuseum that has been planned for the Third Reich's future after the war. With the Nazi's defeat becoming more and more certain, Stokes wants to lead a squad of art experts to track what has become of the missing artistic culture of Europe, lost, stolen or destroyed.
Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin (of The Artist), and Hugh Bonneville (from "Downton Abbey") and...just to keep it from being a complete boy's club...Cate Blanchett as a museum curator who takes notes just as well as the Nazis.
The cast is diverse but quirky. They're paired up—Goodman with Dujardin, Balaban with Murray, Blanchett with Damon—as they go investigating leads. The tone is a sober Kelly's Heroes vibe, with some lightweight dramatics, and episodes of joshing cameraderie. I hate to say it, but it's a bit episodic, like an episode of the TV-series "M*A*S*H," juxtaposing serious and comedic. There are good scenes (the best being Clooney interrogating a Nazi later in the movie), but a lot of things feel slight, depriving the movie from feeling like a whole film, as a series of vignettes, a few highlights and that's it.
Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child," and The Ghent altarpiece, and as long as those stories are complete (and we see the vast warehouses of other pieces, which would be handled, I presume, in Monuments Men II) the movie seems satisfied that it is enough.
Except for the film's central theme, brought up at the beginning and the end of the film: "Is a work of art worth a man's life?" Is it worth the lives of the men who undertake this mission (their recruitment is treated rather sketchily, and there is no doubt, waffling, or questioning of it), and is it worth the life of any soldier who might get killed in order to "protect" a building or fresco?* Monuments Men never answers that question other than to say "it's worth it if that soldier chooses it to be" (as if they have any choice, orders being orders and war being war).That answer is not good enough, given the time invested in the film and its characters.
* That theme is handled much better in Saving Private Ryan, as the men question why their lives are being risked to seek out and find one dog-face.