There have been countless war movies throughout the history of cinema, most of them falling either into the camp of being jingoistic, pro-battle propaganda like “The Longest Day” or “The Green Berets,” or tragic portraits of war’s effects on mankind such as “Platoon,” which cause audiences to wonder if there is any point to battles at all.
Yet in the new movie “The Monuments Men,” star-director-producer-co-writer George Clooney has come up with an all-too-rare fresh angle on war. As an art professor named Frank Stokes who is recruited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself to organize a team of American art experts to recapture classic European art that was stolen by the Nazis, Clooney brings the spirit of his “Oceans 11” heist-film series to tell the often-overlooked story of how this group risked their lives in order to save humanity’s greatest artistic achievements from destruction.
But what truly makes this film shine, especially for Catholic audiences, is the fact that the greatest artworks these men risked their lives to save were Catholic icons. For even as the men also race to save millions of artworks that were stolen from private Jewish collections and Jewish museums, the two works that our heroes are most in awe of and expend the most effort towards are the altarpiece from the Cathedral at Ghent and Michelangelo’s sculpture of the “Madonna and Child.”
Clooney’s Stokes makes it clear that these works must be saved because they inspire not only the countries they were stolen from, but all of humanity. And when one of his team is asked if he is Catholic by a group of priests who are racing to hide the “Madonna and Child,” the hero responds “I am tonight,” before he bravely takes a bullet for the cause.
The movie opens with informing Roosevelt about how dire the stakes are, with the Nazis having looted potentially millions of works of art from the private collections of Jews as well as national art treasures. The artworks – which so far had been stolen from Paris, Amsterdam and Milan – have been taken to form the key pieces of one of Hitler’s dream projects: The Fuhrer Museum, which he hopes will amass the greatest collection of art in the world, by any means necessary.
The Monuments Men ( a name bestowed by the US Army) – now including a Frenchman and a German teenage refugee who becomes an invaluable translator – split up and fan out across Europe in search of clues to the art’s whereabouts. But as they find more and more of the lost treasures, as well as the entire German gold-reserve supply -the Nazis get tougher, creating the Nero Doctrine in which the SS troops are welcome to set fire to any art treasures they feel are in danger of slipping out of Hitler’s hands.
If there is any criticism I could wage against the film, it’s that “Monuments Men” often feels episodic rather than having a tightly wound screenplay. While nearly every scene works, they sometimes seem to be disjointed from each other – such as when Goodman and his French colleague (played by Jean Dejardin of “The Artist”) get lost while in a Jeep together and suddenly wind up ambushed by Nazis.
The assault comes out of nowhere and is too quickly staged to work up much tension. The same problem occurs in at least a couple of other scenes, when a more full-bore approach to action would have been more satisfying. Yet Clooney and his team still pull it off, with the men’s interactions fun to watch and the nobility of their mission likely to inspire viewers to develop a renewed appreciation of art – and the divine inspiration behind the best the world has to offer – as well.