Monument’s Men: Is Art Worth Dying For?

Review of Monument’s Men, Directed by George Clooney

Monument’s Men appears on the scene during a time when the market is saturated with movies “based on a true story.” The true story is of a cohort tasked with recovering the artwork stolen by the Nazis from Western Europe during occupation. Not only must they recover it, they must do so while the war is going on since they must prevent places such as cathedrals housing invaluable pieces from being blown up. Add to this the mad dash for these art stockpiles since the Soviets are coming in from the east and intend to claim them as a kind of war reparation.

The circumstances are perfect for a good film–history, drama, action, and a dash of the cerebral since this is about art. This is not to mention the phenomenal cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray (yes!), Cate Blanchett, and Hugh Bonneville (who knew Lord Grantham would look just as young in WWII?). Unfortunately, Monument’s Men never actualized its potential. The scenes are choppy. You never feel like the movie gets rolling and before you know it you’re expected to feel sympathy with the characters when they exit stage. The balance between comedy and drama felt odd and the corny jokes elicited mild chuckles, but far short of what you expect from Bill Murray (I of course blame the screenwriters, among whom is Clooney).

But seeing that this is Schaeffer’s Ghost, we should take a brief moment to examine the big questions posed by Monument’s Men. The movie begins and ends with a question–first implied and then made explicit–is it worth dying for a piece of art? Of course the answer is yes, or else the odyssey of these brave men would not be worth documenting. But if so, why? The film argues that art is the soul of civilization and in an esoteric way an invaluable vault of human history and experience. Whether or not this line of argument holds water for people will depend in some part on their philosophy of aesthetics (i.e., what about art for art’s sake). Readers can ponder this question on their own time.

At a philosophical level, my main concern about Monument’s Men was that art was unreservedly a good thing. It fails to address the irony that Nazism (and Soviet communism) had their own understanding of art and the political purposes that it served. Does such art also deserve to be preserved, and not only preserved, but immortalized and celebrated? Or can art be judged on a moral basis and hence only art captures the values of “good” civilizations deserve to be preserved?

I understand that this is a movie and there’s no need to get into these questions on the silver screen, but the film aggressively invites such thoughts via its preachy narrator. These men are putting their lives on the line for the sake of art because of what it stands for, which I find very admirable. But perhaps Monument’s Men fails to be a true tribute to their bravery by its weak justification of their sacrifice and the crowding out of such thought-provocation by flat jokes and shallow characters. For a generation where artwork of “the masters” is not as well understood or at least not as appreciated, the big argument of Monument’s Men–that art is worthy dying for–may need more convincing; and the movie is not up to the task.

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