OW SHOWING on the silver screen, George Clooney’s latest film, The Monuments Men, presents a story that would interest art enthusiasts. It loosely recounts the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program enacted by FDR and supported by the Allied forces. The so-called “Monuments Men” were a collection of curators and art historians who were tasked with preserving notable buildings and recovering stolen art during World War II and after its conclusion.
The film has received mostly unfavorable reviews. This is understandable, considering several major cinematic shortfalls. The story involves seven leading characters, none of whom are well developed. While portrayed by a cadre of noteworthy actors, the script leaves character development very thin. It is difficult to discern, moreover, whether the desired tone for the movie is serious or comedic, dramatic or action-oriented. Although the basic plot is based on history, there are also many points of departure from the real-life MFAA. The movie gives the appearance, at times, of being a collection of unrelated vignettes, rather than a cohesive story.
The Monuments Men nevertheless remains an interesting film to me, as a lover of art. It concerns a facet of WWII history that receives little attention, and it conveys a refreshingly reverential attitude toward the great art of the Western world. Throughout, the viewer senses that the Monuments Men feel empowered by the nobility of their task. Safeguarding the treasures of European art is portrayed as a mission at once practical and heroic.
We have discussed the enduring quality of art on these pages before, in another review. To see these themes incorporated into a wide-release motion picture from a leading actor & director, though, is most encouraging. It would be hard to imagine this picture not having a positive effect on the wider population’s respect for art’s special value.
Several scenes raise difficult questions regarding the value of a piece of “priceless” art. Is any piece of art more valuable than a human life? To that, we must answer no. Having said that, though, under the principle of double effect, there could still be situations in which risking one’s life for the sake of preserving a great work of art could be justifiable. Issues of proportionality and collateral damage are obliquely drawn in to the narrative, and some of the situations these men encounter really cause one to think. The plot, scattered though it may be, strongly conveys a sense of the corporate responsibility we all share for preserving art and handing it on to future generations; it seems to assume that all humanity shares in the ownership of our race’s greatest handiwork, on the basis that art is a foundational requisite for true culture.
In my opinion, the story is worth telling, and the real-life characters present opportunities that may have been better suited to a mini-series than a single-release film. It would have been entertaining to see such a strong cast bring texture and shape and life to these unsatisfying, flat character sketches. I recommend this film for artists and art lovers, less for its cinematic merits than for its thematic content and the piquant questions it raises.