Is art worth risking a life for?
This is the question “The Monuments Men” aims to address rather than answer. For most, the moral response would be disagreement, but for the “Monuments Men” described in the book of the same name by Robert Edsel, preserving the history and culture of the eras they studied and revered outweighed the cost of their own lives.
Translated onto film, George Clooney, taking on both a directorial and on-screen role, artfully illustrates this group of museum curators, architects, and art historians who fought to reclaim stolen art from the Nazis. Clooney’s creative approach in adapting a story focused on a lesser-known aspect of war serves both art enthusiasts and the general public well.
While the real historical mission involved several hundred men and women, spanned over a many months, and involved meticulous planning across multiple countries, the film’s condensed depiction, cutting from city to city and year to year, still provides a good overview of the setting, but with enough brevity that the film was able to focus on the most interesting part: the action. The violence and tragedies of war, whether the casualty of a group member or a graphic display of an injured soldier, are no less hidden by the projection of art as the film’s priority.
What Clooney succeeds in presenting is not a detailed report of World War II history but the undying passion these men (and women) had for the irreplaceable time capsules represented by art. As insignificant as inanimate objects would seem during a time of mass murder and destruction, the film reminds us that the paintings, sculptures, and monuments existing today came with a price – the sacrifice of those who foresaw the greater service art would bring future generations.
To emphasise this point, several scenes show the men disregarding the imminent danger they are in to clearly appreciate the pieces they find. Realistically, they would grab them and make haste. Another slightly off-putting scene involving an explosive is played off too calmly to the extent that the audience can tell the actors are well aware they themselves are acting.
The film as a work of art itself has its unrefined areas, but overall is enjoyably sentimental and humorous with genuine chemistry and snappy dialogue. The relationship between Sergeant Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Private Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) comes across as particularly organic and engaging but the camaraderie of the entire A-list cast brings forth a sense of the true team effort that was required to recover over five million works of art.
The Monuments Men – Thursday 9.00pm on FilmFour.