‘Monuments Men’ more history lesson than film

By Karsten Burgstahler

Early on in his new film, “The Monuments Men” (Rated PG-13; 118 Min.), director, writer and star George Clooney reminds his team members that even though their mission is to rescue art, ultimately their lives are more important.

Later on, Clooney’s Frank Stokes begins to change his tune, insinuating this art may be important enough to give his life for. The way Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov focus on the mission over the characters seems to echo this changing sentiment; “Monuments Men” forgets about the men and spends too much time on the monuments.

But even though the film’s message, a plea to preserve culture, might be too little, it is not necessarily too late.


Stokes is an art curator who approaches the president about putting together a team to ensure the protection of European art. It is the end of World War II and Hitler’s men are starting to retreat, but not before Hitler issues the Nero Decree—an order for his soldiers to burn bridges, buildings and art as the allied forces push them out. Stokes puts together a team of men to go from city to city collecting the art before the Nazis can destroy it.

All of this should make for a thrilling feature, a war story never before told on screen and a different entry point to the conflict. However, “The Monuments Men” never really reaches entertaining, and when it does try its hand at suspense, it comes off as corny. And when it’s not tempting this balance, it’s overly reverent. Clooney’s men arrive on Normandy Beach a month after D-Day and observe the rather empty sand. This is an apt metaphor for the movie; the Monuments Men are in war territory but it seems as if they are already in the history lesson 50 years later. The story is naturally passive rather than active, even in the thick of things.

Soon after all the men come together, Stokes splits them into teams, essentially creating several different story threads. The most interesting one follows Matt Damon’s James Granger, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art sent to figure out what Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone knows. She was thrown in to prison after trying to hide some art Hitler wanted to move into his planned museum. These two seem to care the most about art, and their push and pull—Simone believes Granger wants to take the art back to the U.S. as a trophy—is intriguing. The thread ends with the notion that America knows what is best and everyone should listen to us, not exactly different from the other threads, but at least the characters are interesting.

The search picks up as the characters come back together and figure out where Hitler has been hiding the art. This happens about two-thirds of the way through the film and balances the history lesson with entertainment, but this harmony doesn’t last long. The Russians become the bad guys as soon as the Germans surrender and Clooney’s men try to retrieve art from a collapsed mine as the Russians send a convoy to claim it as their prize. Every time the camera goes to them, a poor man’s version of the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” theme plays, reducing the Russians to something out of a Saturday morning cartoon.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with patriotism, but with everything historians know about World War II there’s no reason for a movie to use it as a crutch. There are stories of American sacrifice and triumph during the war that are far more captivating.

Of course the lesson about preserving our culture in the face of war—and make no mistake, the U.S. is in the middle of a culture war where good ideas aren’t given the attention they deserve in favor of reality television—is quite relevant. But to be successful, this point requires the script take an active stand to preserve art, and unfortunately Clooney’s film is resigned to the aftermath, missing out on what could have been. This passive stance, coupled with poor, splintered character development, hinders the ambitious “Monuments Men” from the start.

Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at [email protected] , on Twitter @kburgstahler_DE or by phone at 536-3311 ext. 254.