2014-02-08

The Monuments Men – Not a Monumental Achievement

by Yo Snyder

The Monuments Men
is based on an intriguing bit of real history. Towards the end of the World War
II, a relatively small group of men (around 350) were tasked with the mission
of making sure that the Nazis didn’t burn everything down with them as they
plunged towards their inevitable defeat. Of particular concern were the many
great and irreplaceable works of art they had seized to one day fill the Fuhrer
museum with. Not only did this team have to track down where this art was at,
but also find a way to return it to its rightful place. The whole things sounds
like a real-life Indiana Jones adventure mixed with some Ocean’s Eleven
heisting hijinks, and one would think that would naturally make for a great
movie. And it still might, it’s just that The
Monuments Men
isn’t that movie. We see shades of the movie that it could
have been, that rollicking Indiana/Ocean’s mash-up we were expecting, but in
the end what this movie mostly tells us is some stuff happened to try and save
art during the end of World War II, and proceeds to show us some highlights of
what that effort was without ever really telling us a story.

Truthfully, I’d probably be a bit more lenient with all of
that if it wasn’t so frustrating that such a fine cast was wasted doing not
much of anything. Clooney, Murray, Damon, Goodman, Blanchett, Bonneville (the
guy from Downton Abbey, not the car),
Balaban…there are some really good actors in here. Some of them, like Bill
Murray, don’t really make many appearances anymore, so it’s easy to think if
they’re doing this, it must be something special. For the most part, they all
get their scenes, but we’ve spent so little time with their characters and
learned so little about them that those scenes have a hard time connecting with
the audience no matter who the actor is. We’re told that all these characters
have bonded together, but we’re never shown it. Seriously, we’re just told
they’re all buddies because “that’s what basic training does.” Ok, so we don’t
know where they’ve come from, why they were picked for this (other than they’re
artistic types like architects, sculptors and what not), but we do know they’re
all buddies with each other because we’re told they went through basic training
and that’s what happens there. Umm…I was hoping for a little more development
than that. Other oddities abound so far as possible character building moments,
but the end result is some great talent that doesn’t get much time or material
to really shine with. Plus, I just have to say, this is one of the worst
examples of the use of music in a movie I’ve seen in a long time. A friend
described it as music from a 1960’s Disney documentary. It doesn’t ever enhance
any scene, it just distracts from them; the cardinal sin of any movie
soundtrack.

The core of this story is whether or not the art is really
worth saving; even if it means the lives of the men trying to save it. In
truth, I found the later part of that question to be the more compelling one;
what is the life of a human really worth? We get a few hints at how the Nazis
viewed the sanctity of human life; barrels filled with gold teeth, warehouses
full of “people’s lives” – their art, their furniture – that were confiscated,
references to Hitler’s “final solution” and the camps that resulted from it.
Yes, history has documented quite well exactly what the Nazi view on the value
of human life. But then you have the Monuments Men, and their view that perhaps
even a priceless piece of art is worth more than a life. After all, art and its
expression is the foundation of civilization as we know it; and isn’t that an
ideal worth giving up a life for? This movie may be about the value of art in
our culture and society, but I couldn’t escape the parallel track of the value and
sanctity of human life. In fact, I think they may be tied up together. I would
say that, in God’s eyes, human life is so precious and so valuable because it
is nothing short of a work of art; a masterpiece. Humanity was the crowning
achievement of God’s creation, and the only element out of all creation to made
in his image. We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), so the
Bible tells us. We were sculpted out of the clay, crafted to resemble God, and
given a breath of life. It was an artful act of creation that brought us into
being; so what is the art of human life worth? To God, it’s worth everything,
and like those Monuments Men, he did everything possible, even sacrificing his
one and only Son so that the beauty that is humanity might be saved. Was it
worth the lives of those men to save the priceless art treasures of the Western
world? What is the value of the artistic achievement that is human life; do we
still believe it even has sanctity? Is it also a treasure worth protecting and
guarding and, yes, maybe even sacrificing to protect?

At the end of the film, the president asks whether the art
that was saved was worth the lives of the men who were lost. I thought that was
kind of an odd question since he, the president, was the one who approved said
mission so I assumed he had already worked through those issues, but of course
that was more a question for the audience to contemplate that just happened to
be uttered by a character who should have already figured it out…sorry, off
track there. So, the question is was it worth it? Regardless of what the answer
is in history, I think it’s safe to say that this film, which struggles to
relate that history, is definitely not worth it. It’s frustrating because not
only is there some fascinating history to learn here, which we do get a bit
off, but also the potential for a really great, really fun film. The Monuments Men never fully taps
into the history it’s trying to relate or the potential fun it could have. The
cast is just too good, so there is some enjoyment to be had, but overall it’s
just not worth the frustration of watching a decent movie that could have been
something really fun and special.

Score: 4 of 7 – This
just would have been better given more time to develop the history, the story
and the characters. On the plus side, no real objectionable content to worry
about; a smattering of bad words, a slight splattering of blood here or there,
but for the most part it’s quite inoffensive.