There’s hardly a more fascinating story than the tale of the so-called Monuments Men. At the end of World War II, a team of American and European art experts — among them, former Chair of the Fine Arts Department and director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Charles P. Parkhurst, OC ’38 — tracked down thousands of stolen works of art looted by the Nazis for Hitler’s utopian Führermuseum. Working alone and at great personal risk, they chased after some of Europe’s greatest cultural treasures at a time when few people saw the value of risking lives to save paintings.
And yet, despite a compelling story of love (of art) and war and a stellar cast in every sense of the word, I was quite disappointed by The Monuments Men. Don’t get me wrong: It was a thoroughly entertaining movie, filled with a stream of schmaltzy Clooney one-liners, an appropriate number of large explosions, and oh, so much art. The Vermeers, the Michelangelos, the Ghent Altarpiece — be still my beating Art History major heart. There was a refreshingly human core to every character, emphasizing their families, their backgrounds and their deep commitment to recovering Europe’s cultural heritage. And there were many quietly emotional scenes to counterbalance the humor, like when the Nazis torch stacks of paintings, or when the team finds barrels of gold wedding bands and tooth fillings.
But for a movie that was essentially a story about individual and collective heroism, the abundance of light-hearted scenes came at the expense of any real character development, giving only the most shallow sense of an extraordinary group of people. The movie felt an awful lot like Ocean’s Eleven, not helped by the presence of George Clooney and Matt Damon: the video montage introducing each character and their role in the heist (the curator, the professor, the architect, et cetera), the clashing personalities and the charmingly silly vignettes. At the same time, it also tried to be a throwback to that classic post-World War II genre of morally uplifting, jingoistic cinema that celebrated America’s role in ending German tyranny, a reference that could have been ironically enjoyable but instead dragged the movie down with bulky, clumsy monologues about sticking it to the Nazis and a climax that wasn’t.
I think what bothered me the most about the movie was that it was eminently forgettable, with a neatly-wrapped up storyline about what a great job America did, without commenting on how the search for looted treasure continues to this day, or even giving a quick slideshow honoring the people it portrays. During his talk last year at the Allen, Robert Edsel, author of the book on which the movie was based, stressed the importance of bringing to light and remembering the incredible work carried out by the women and men involved in recovering Europe’s most precious cultural treasures. It’s disappointing that a movie as enormous and star-studded as The Monuments Men could fall so flat in this regard.