Directed by George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin
I wanted to like this movie. I really and truly did. So much about this movie is so good and holds so much promise that it seems a shame to say that it wasn’t very good. Even so, honesty forces me to say that the film never quite comes together. There are many lovely little pieces, many fine moments of performances, and a fantastic overall message, but while the film has a clear vision, it lacks a consistent voice.
Based on the real life exploits of a group of art and architecture experts tasked with identifying and saving valuable art objects in the midst of World War II, Monuments Men borrows its storytelling form from films like The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, or even more recently, The Expendables. In the midst of war an unconventional plan requires the drafting of an unconventional group of soldiers that happen to be perfect in their quirks for the task at hand. Only this time the mission is the preservation of art, and the “unconventional nature of the individuals is their age and decidedly unwarlike expertise.
As a story form, the range of actors and the characters they inhabit allow for a great deal of space in which to explore the nature of warfare on both practical and philosophical grounds. The danger, to which this film unfortunately falls prey, is that the diversity overwhelms the writer and director and the separate stories and vignettes never come together to form a cohesive whole.
What kept the various scenes apart from each other was a lack of consistent tone binding them together. The scene that sums this up for me, is one where Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Jean Claude Claremont (Jean Dujardin) are attacked by a lone sniper. Since neither of them are “soldiers” there is some trepidation about who should do what. When Garfield eventually takes on the task of clearing the sniper from the building, we are gripped with suspense as he turns every corner expecting to find the sniper. Finally he turns one corner ready to fire only to find the sniper is a preteen boy with a rifle in a German uniform.
There’s nothing wrong with this scene per se, why I choose it as an example, is that the film plays this off as a moment of levity. As Garfield marches the young boy past his French colleague, he says something like, “Let’s not tell anyone about this.” As if being shot at by a preteen is some kind of embarrassment whereas being shot at by an adult sniper would have been serious. The boy had a real rifle and was really trying to kill them. If anything this event makes the war that much more horrible, but the film plays it off as though they were anxious for nothing, these big allied soldiers scared of a little boy! (never mind he had a rifle and good positioning).
Again, my own take on this film’s problems is that it stems from an embarrassment of riches. Too many good actors who can do both comedy and drama put in a setting that allows for all the versatility a writer and director can imagine. Sometimes the worst speeches are when you have too much to say, and I really think that is the case here. Directors and writers need to be specific about the vision and the voice they employ.
That said, there is much that is good about the film. The acting is good, certainly, and many of the vignettes do a great job allowing the acting to shine. Two that come to mind are Dujardin’s scene with the stray horse and Bill Murray listening to his record from home. Most importantly, however, is the film’s overall point.
Clooney has made this film a kind of crusade in favor of the artistry of movie making over and against the bottom line mentality of big studios. Movie studios should make money in order to make films, not make films in order to make money. It’s clear that this film is a vehicle for Clooney as both writer and director to push that message as far is it can go. It could even be the case that his interest in delivering a rebuke to the movie industry got in the way of his telling the story in the strongest way possible.
Still, it’s a good message, and one that our society needs. I played Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for one of my classes. I told them, “You should be grateful for Beethoven, by pointing to his music, humanity can justify itself.” The idea had never hit them. They, too, needed to be justified. Living itself is not enough.
And I suppose this is my take away from the film. We’ve misunderstood the relationship of ends and means. Winning the war was not an end in itself, but a means. Making money is not an ends but a means. As a philosopher I bristle any time anyone asks me what one does with a liberal arts degree. To even ask the question is to miss the point. Countless generations have struggled in fields and factories in order to afford students the opportunity, the privilege, to escape the daily drudgery of mere existence in order to attempt to be able to dedicate attention to beauty and meaning. And then someone asks, how does contemplating beauty and meaning help me to go back to merely existing?
In the past, great cultures struggled to provide excess means of survival in order to produce artists, poets, and philosophers. We produce artists, poets, and philosophers only insofar as they enable us to merely survive. We have it backwards. We must not create art to make money; we make money to create art. We do not produce beauty in order to exist; we exist in order to produce beauty. Our priorities are out of order, and this will be our inevitable downfall.
Clooney’s character is asked whether the sacrifice of lives is worth saving the artworks his unit preserves. Yes, a thousand times yes. Without art, there’s no point to living anyway.