Truth Rings Out Softly: A Review of “The Monuments Men”

George Clooney’s new film is both safe and satisfying, sometimes in surprising ways

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Reel Rating: (4 Reels out of 5)

“Who cares about art?” Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) wonders reflexively as he tries to convince Franklin Roosevelt to let him take a team of soldiers into war-torn Europe to save precious masterpieces, including the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, from the fleeing Nazis. Hitler cared little for human beings but quite a lot for art; he intended to steal the entirety of Europe’s artistic heritage and house it in a monstrously large Führer Museum. As Hitler’s Reich was coming to an end in the spring of 1945, he authored the Nero Degree, ordering his officers to destroy everything (Albert Speer, Hitler’s Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, ignored the command). Roosevelt agrees to let Stokes form a small group of specialists including an architect, museum curator, and four other nerdy 40-somethings that have no business on the battlefield in an attempt to stem the tide.

The Monuments Men is probably one of the safest films ever made on the Second World War. If not for the constant (and period accurate) cigarette smoking, it may have gotten a PG rating. It’s so beautifully quiet. There are no extended battle scenes, little swearing, and neither Clooney or Matt Damon even bare their chests. It is a life-affirming picture about the importance of culture told in a witty and subtle manner. Like a restorationist who labors meticulously over every fiber of a 13th-century tapestry, writer/director Clooney treats his film with gloved hands. The dialogue is clever but not pretentious, the pacing is suspenseful but not tense, and every character—even the evil ones—matter.

The plot follows the traditional ship-of-fools narrative: a funny group of characters thrown into an unusual situation, all played by seasoned actors like John Goodman, Damon, and Jean Dujardin. When they arrive at Normandy well after the fighting, the commanding officer is infuriated with their orders: “You want to tell my men what they can and can’t blow up?!” That pretty much sums it up. Fortunately, they have better luck with French secretary Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who knows where the Nazis hid the art.

The journey to find these priceless artifacts contains a variety of funny and often touching vignettes. For example, when the team finds a sniper who’s been trying to pick them off, it’s a nine year-old. They throw him in a POW camp with the glaring attitude of a parent putting a rebellious child on timeout. The clashing personalities, clever writing, and light music create a nostalgic throwback to classic war comedies like Kelley’s Heroes. It’s a good family film designed for both the Greatest Generation and SNL fans.

A surprisingly refreshing element of Men is the devotion that each soldier has to their families. They are always talking about their kids, their wives, and life across the Atlantic. There’s an especially beautiful scene when Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) receives a record as a Christmas present but cannot play it due to lack of equipment. While taking a shower that night, he hears the voice of his wife and kids singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” His colleague managed to find a way to broadcast it across the camp so everyone could have a little home away from home.

In another scene, Claire invites Lt. James Granger (Damon) over to her apartment to celebrate the end of the war and give him important information. When he hesitates, she simply replies, “it’s Paris.” When he arrives that night, she is elegantly dressed in Tiffany-esqe attire; he doesn’t even have a tie. She provides a tie and an invitation to stay the night. He reaches out his hand, prominently displaying a wedding ring, touches her on the shoulder, thanks her for the tie, and politely leaves. It’s a memoable display of chastity and tenderness. He is grateful for her help in recovering the art but faithful to his wife, even if it is Paris.

Early in the film, Stokes tells his men they must be very careful and not take risks. “Your life is more important than art,” he tells them. This, of course, is true. Art sings God’s glory, but man is made in the very image of God. Yet as Stokes witnesses the bravery of his men and the horror of Nazi destruction, he begins to see that sacrifices may be required.

In particular, Maj. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame) has joined the war after shaming his British aristocratic family in some unmentionable scandal. He is worried the Nazis will steal the Madonna and Child and so breaks through enemy lines to check on it. He finds the Madonna safe with several priests in a church. “Are you Catholic?” they ask. “Today I am,” he smiles. Unfortunately, the Nazis find the church, and Jeffries pays the ultimate price to protect his lady. Although it’s only a statue, his act is a martyrdom of sorts. He has a chance for redemption by protecting the honor of Mary, the legacy of Europe, and the symbol of centuries-old religious devotion. In the end, Stokes finds that people really do care about art because it leads to love of neighbor and God. That is worth dying for.

There was a good article recently in the National Catholic Register entitled “Does Jesus Have a Home in Hollywood?” When faced with the massive immorality in film and television, which seems to increase and worsen every year, it’s a legitimate question. The answer is “Yes.” All storytelling—in books, movies, television shows, and even song—is inherently Christian because the three acts of every tale (setup, conflict, resolution) mirror salvation history (creation, fall, redemption). Films like The Monuments Men prove this time and time again. As high quality digital cameras become cheaper and distribution becomes wider through non-studio avenues like Netflix, Catholics will find it easier than ever to make great cinema and show it the world. The truth will always ring out. In the case of The Monuments Men, it’s not a very loud ring but an very pleasant one.

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About Nick Olszyk 189 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.