The Monuments Men: A Movie with a Slow Soul

By: Amy Whalen Deger

When the trailer for The Monuments Men premiered I was intrigued.  I did a little digging and found that it was based on a book which was based on a true story.  The book, by Robert M. Edsel is called The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.  My initial plan had been to read the book prior to seeing the movie, mostly because I like to develop the picture in my head without a preconceived idea of what everything should look like.  (I think if you asked, most writers would want the opportunity to paint that picture).  I downloaded the book to my kindle and designated it my “read before bed book”.  Which in my world means that I expected to enjoy it enough that I could read it before falling asleep, to unwind, but I wouldn’t be so worried about finding out what happens that it keeps me up and reading at two in the morning.  This didn’t work out as expected because two chapters in I put the kindle down and I haven’t opened up that book since.  I don’t want that to be a reflection of the book so much as me not having the time or attention span right now to sit down with something meaty.  I hope to revisit it and maybe I will even be able to bring you a review/comparison of it to the movie someday.  Not today though.  Today I want to talk about the movie, mostly because I went ahead and caved and rented it through Amazon Prime.

The Monuments Men were a small group of men in WW2 who travelled through Europe with the express purpose of preserving precious works of art.  They were led by Frank Stokes who is played by George Clooney.

What struck me in the first half hour or so of this movie was that it seemed to lack some of the soul that you often see in movies about war.  Usually it begins with the joining together of a team that trains for battle together and becomes a unit.  These sequences show us why the unit cares about each other and in the process we begin to care about them.  That scene doesn’t exist here.  It is established in the beginning of the movie that young and able-bodied men are not available for the Monuments Men detail.  Frank Stokes calls in men who truly understand art but are not what one would think of as a potential soldier.  The cast hints at this: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Demitri Leonidas.  None are men who would be drafted today.  There is no bonding moment as the group comes together.  There is no training montage or angry commanding officer that binds the men under a hat of unity.    The message is clear in this first part of the movie, these men are not soldiers.  What all of the men do agree on is the importance of their mission, which is to recover art before it is destroyed by the Nazi army.  In a way, my feelings for the Monuments Men as a unit mirror the resistance they get from the commanders on the front.  Of course, they have an important purpose, but it’s not more important than beating Hitler and it may not be important enough to risk lives.

Often the feeling I get from war movies is that the person on the screen could be me.  If my world was turned upside down, and I was sent to war, and watched my best friend die how would I feel?  War movies show us what that feeling might be like and while I do feel for these devastated people on the screen the true and deepest feelings I get are ones that resonate with my own experiences.  I suspect that this is one of the reasons that we are often shown training sequences in movies like this.  The message is, anyone can be a soldier if they are trained to be, and you are anyone.  Not anyone can be the curator of the Met or a famous architect and so the audience is more disconnected from these characters.

So we are roughly thirty minutes into the movie and the team has been formed and have landed on Normandy Beach.  The team breaks up and begins scouring parts of Italy and France in search of the missing art.  Donald Jeffries, the only Englishmen on the squad, who is played by Hugh Bonneville, goes in search of Michaelangelo’s sculpture of Madonna and Child.  None of the other men from the unit are with him and the Colonel in the town refuses to give him any support, refusing to leave the statue unprotected, he goes to it alone to guard it from the retreating Nazi Army.  While protecting the sculpture Jeffries is shot and killed.  The moment is so sudden it is startling.  Which is odd because every move Jeffries made before this seemed to forecast his fate.  He disobeys orders, goes off alone, even the narration being spoken is a letter Jeffries wrote to his father stating that he finally felt he had a purpose and that he was working for something worthwhile.  So why did I miss it?  Up to this point the story gives the illusion that the Monuments Men are not a part of the war but something that skirts around it.  This moment makes them soldiers and makes them a part of the war.  This moment tells the audience that regardless of their differences from the average soldier, the stakes are the same.

The feeling I had as a viewer changed after this scene.  I watched more anxiously, worried when the next team member would fall.  I believe this was a calculated choice by the brains behind the film because the story line encourages this feeling.  The audience begins to learn more about each character.  They have families that they love, some of them are grandparents even, and they chose to leave home because of how deeply they believe in Frank Stokes purpose. The message now is, you might not be me but maybe I’m your dad or the grandpa you may not get know if this goes badly.  In this way I think the emotional ride that this movie takes you on is complex and interesting.

There is some awkwardness later in the movie as voice over narration seems to jump from nowhere.  I thought for a moment that the movie was ending only about an hour in because of the narration.  Not just because it existed but because it started to sum things up, seemingly before they were ready to be summed.

I won’t spoil the ending of the movie because I do think you should give it a watch.  If you do and want to let me know what you thought leave a comment below or shoot a tweet to @CultureBabble



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