Film Review: ‘Monuments Men’ – The War of Art

‘Monuments Men’ a lighthearted film for a heavy subject
By Mark Jackson, Epoch Times
February 12, 2014 Updated: February 12, 2014

In his book “The War of Art,” Steven Pressfield describes “resistance” as the bane of all artists. Fiendishly difficult to overcome, it’s the cosmic force that arises to inhibit anything important we desire to accomplish. Think of what happens when you set a goal to generate “six-pack” abdominals. Immediate inhibitions and distractions set in.

Pressfield goes so far as to insist that art student Adolf Hitler, when faced with painting blank canvases, came up with the mother of all distractions. He started World War II instead.

It’s quite a plausible notion, and it would easily explain Hitler’s desire to plunder all of Europe’s great artistic masterpieces and cram them into his very own “Führer Museum.”

“Mine! It’s all mine! I can’t create it, so I’ll just own all of it, and the whole world will have to bow down before me to see it!”

Makes sense. World War II was a war of art indeed.

“The Monuments Men” tells the story of the men who set out to thwart ol’ Schicklgruber’s (Hitler’s father’s real name) dastardly, top-to-bottom European art-ransack.

From Basic Training to Busting Art Burglars

President Roosevelt appointed a small group of volunteer historians and art professors, put them through a scaled-down version of Army basic training (due to their advanced ages), and set them loose to find all the art Hitler stole. True story.

George Clooney writes, directs, and stars as Harvard art historian Frank Stokes.

Stokes’s recruits for the mission consist of, briefly, an architect (Bill Murray), a museum curator (Matt Damon), and a sculptor (John Goodman). These are three of the whole team of six.

They land at Normandy and proceed through to the Battle of the Bulge, tracking, scouting, sniffing, and ferreting out filched art.

The story ends in the salt mines where the Germans hid many thousands of priceless works. The Russians are coming…

More Art Than Action

Everyone’s an art lover in this film, except maybe the U.S. presidents listening to Stokes’s presentations before and after the mission. It’s a film about art lovers who love art. Best seen by art lovers.

Very little war here, not much tension, a bit bland. There’s lots of polite conversation.

The best scene is Richard Campbell (Murray) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) visiting a German household, which is stuffed to the gills with obvious original Renoirs and Cézannes.

The man of the house denies any deviousness. Murray suddenly hollers “Heil Hitler!” and the man’s children immediately scream “Heil Hitler!” and snap to attention. Doh! Busted!

There’s a cute “Mexican standoff” with an AWOL German soldier. Murray, Balaban, and the German kid end up sharing a cigarette and acknowledging the John Wayne-ness of it all.

Overall, there’s just no tension or urgency. It’s generally cutesy. The music is cutesy in a military kind of way, and the jokes are cutesy and half-baked.

But it’s most certainly a story that needed telling. We’ve all heard rumors that the Nazis stole a bunch of art, but who knew the ridiculous, Teutonic-attention-to-detail, massive scale of it? It’s shocking, this Führer filch-fest.

And yet the film delivers like a Friday afternoon art-history class where the tweedy professor drones, flies buzz in the open windows, and students daydream about road-tripping to Bennington, or the upcoming football game against Amherst.

It needed a more exciting telling. It’s a Jack-of-all-trades film, with Clooney clearly not having been able to decide if it’s an important historical document, a rollicking adventure, a comedy, or a heist caper. It ends up being all of those, and none of them satisfactorily.


‘The Monuments Men’
Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban
Run Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 7
Rated PG-13
2.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch