Jun 22, 2014

The Monuments Men

My wife is on nights at the hospital, so that means it is time for another round of “David Catches Up on Movies!” Last time, I watched some sci-fi films that I had managed to miss. This time, I am just grabbing anything that piques my interest.  I was again too tired on Wednesday night to watch a movie.  And after my lack of appreciation for the violent films, I decided to pick up "The Monuments Men" with George Clooney and a ton of other people.

I like George Clooney.  I mean, I don't know him or anything.  But I like him as an actor and entertainment personality.  One of my favorite movie franchises is the Oceans trilogy.  I have enjoyed several Clooney starring, directed, or produced projects (Good Night and Good Luck, The Descendants, Leatherheads, Up in the Air, Out of Sight).  I also like the fact that he is concerned about the world around him.  So whenever Clooney is involved in something, it immediately gains my attention.

I like Matt Damon.  Again, I don't know the guy personally.  I enjoy his movies.  Obviously, I am a big fan of Oceans.  I've also loved Damon in We Bought a Zoo, the Bourne Trilogy, The Good Shepherd, True Grit.  He's a good actor.  In addition, he also is very interested in helping the world around him.  Which is great.

I like Bill Murray.  One of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day.  I think Murray is a severely under appreciated actor.  I like John Goodman.  I like Cate Blanchett.  You see where this is going.  When I saw the marketing for The Monuments Men, it seemed like a surefire hit.  The cast is astounding.  Clooney directed it.  It is set in World War II, which has such a rich depth of available stories.  And there appeared to be a kind of Oceans Eleven vibe to it.  The previews seemed pretty humorous.  "'I appear to have stepped on a land mine.'  'Well what did you do that for?'"  And I mean, look at the tagline for the movie.  "It was the greatest art heist in history."  Good stuff, right?

Then I finally got to watch The Monuments Men.  I honestly felt like the movie suffered from the same problem that Clooney himself suffers from.  I never know when to take the film, or the actor, seriously.  Clooney has that little smirk, even when he is isn't in a funny movie.  I have had a hard time in some of his stuff because he doesn't really have an intensity switch.  The movie itself had the same problem.  Was it a lighthearted take on a marginal element of World War II?  Or was it something more serious?  

If you look at the cast, it is heavily loaded with actors very comfortable with comedy: Goodman, Murray, Clooney, Bob Balaban (Friends, Christopher Guest movies), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), even Damon.  The previews were heavy on the comedic elements.  The score by Alexandre Desplat had this kind of playful quality.  It seemed to be written for a old-school farce or something.  All of that is swirling around against the backdrop of the horrors of war.  

Then there was another problem, one that the characters IN the film seemed to wrestle with most of the time.  These guys were scampering around Europe trying to save works of art while there were millions of people trying to, you know, not die.  World War II saw some of the worst atrocities in human history.  The violence was so brutal (referring back to Saving Private Ryan, mentioned in my post the other day).  Concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, internment camps, atomic bombs, relentless bombing, starvation.  War is despicable.  World War II was beyond despicable.  As these artists are racing around, they try to get help from "real soldiers."  These war weary men look at the artists like they are crazy.  One officer responds to a request help with, "I know exactly what you want.  You want me to tell my guys, who are trying to fight off an enemy force, to risk being killed by not blowing up certain buildings."  It really was ludicrous.  

But, on the other hand, you could understand what these guys were saying as well.  Hitler didn't just want to win the war or take over the world.  He didn't even want to just kill the Jews.  He wanted to erase them from history.  Clooney's character keeps saying that it is important to preserve the culture of a people as well.  They make good points.  But, as one commenter on imdb.com said, "Who cares.  Twelve million people died."  Point taken.
The movie would be humming along, these guys sparring with and razzing each other.  Then, all of the sudden, someone would get killed.  Or they would find giant barrels full of gold teeth pulled out of the mouths of Jewish people killed by the Germans.  Then they would go back to goofing around.  Then they would rush some guy into a battlefield hospital who was destroyed by artillery fire.  Then they would flirt with a French resistance fighting artist.  It was weird.  

I have had a couple of days to think about the movie.  And I still don't really know what exactly Clooney was trying to do with the film.  Were we supposed to sympathize with the artists and their quest to save over three million pieces of art?  Or were we supposed to think that their efforts were juvenile when compared with the massive cost of the war?  There were times when it felt like these guys were being mocked by the movie itself - putting a huge discovery of art in juxtaposition with the barrels of teeth, for example.  At other times, it was clear that they were the heroes, protecting what no one else realized was even important.  But even the overall villainy wasn't clear.  Hitler was the ultimate bad guy.  He was the one behind all of the atrocities - the destruction, the Jewish persecution, the theft and/or destruction of tons of irreplaceable artwork.  But, the most tense moments in the film came when these artists were faced with a confrontation with the Soviets, who were planning on taking all the Nazi-stolen art back to Russia to make up for their losses.  And the people that raised the most ire for me were actually the allied military leaders who completely ignored the Monuments Men's warnings about several dangers, which led to the deaths of multiple people.  Again, it was weird.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed with the film.  It was extremely uneven in tone and message.  The acting was nice.  It was like having a good time with friends, chatting and hanging out.  Then those fun times were punctuated by shockingly horrific events.  Only, then we were expected to just go back to having a good time.  Why?  That's the question I was left asking.  Were we supposed to take on a bigger message, like how easily it is to just forget the horrors of the world around us in favor of what we see as important?  That makes me feel like the Monuments Men were completely misguided in their efforts.  Or were we supposed to realize that the cost of war is more than just lives and structural damage, but also the heart, souls, and culture of the people involved?  In that case, the soldier artists were definitely heroes.  I desperately wanted to like the film.  I wanted to see it as important.  But it felt like the movie itself kept me from succeeding in my mission.

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