Friday, February 07, 2014

The Monuments Men

I love it when films inspire me.  Not all do - some (most?) are pure entertainment that I enjoy for 2+ hours and then leave at the theater.  Some touch me and have me thinking about a certain issue or relationship for a day or two.  Still others are not worth the pixels it takes to create them.  Merriam-Webster's online dictionary's first definition of "inspire" is "to make (someone) want to do something : to give (someone) an idea about what to do or create."  Keeping to this definition, films that inspire are, I think, fairly rare.  The Monuments Men, which I had the privilege of screening Wednesday night, is one such film. 

The Monuments Men is the new film co-written by, directed by and starring George Clooney.  Based on the true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history, The Monuments Men focuses on seven over-the-hill, out-of-shape museum directors, artists, architects, curators, and art historians who went to the front lines of WWII to rescue the world’s artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their rightful owners.  It's a great premise, and one that brings up a lot of questions.  What is art?  Why is it important?  Can it be "owned"?  Should it be "owned"?  Is it worth risking a human life to save?  Clooney and company - Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonides and Cate Blanchett - are faced with these questions time and again during their quest for the literally millions of pieces of art the Nazis pilfered from public and private collections.  The questions are good ones, and they elevate the art to become another character in the movie - a character that is loved, lusted after and pursued with passion.   

I was hooked just a few minutes into the movie when Clooney's character, Frank Stokes, is pitching the idea of The Monuments Men to FDR.  He presents a slide show outlining the destruction and/or looting of historic monuments and artwork.  The centerpiece of the slide show is a story about Monte Cassino - a centuries old abbey on a hill overlooking the Italian town of Cassino.  St Benedict of Nursia built the abbey, the source of the Benedictine Order, in AD 529.  The Allies, believing that German troops were using the abbey as a vantage point for snipers, sanctioned the bombing of it on February 15, 1944.  The abbey, and all of its treasures, was destroyed.  (The Germans weren't in the abbey, but were manning positions around the abbey walls.)  My grandfather fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino as part of the 36th Infantry Division from Texas.  I've heard about that battle all of my life - about how my grandfather was heartbroken that the abbey was destroyed, but feeling that it had to be done to save lives.  Knowing that his Battle was an integral part of a movement to save art, not only did it draw me in to the movie, but it made me once again swell with pride for my grandfather.

The movie itself is excellent.  The script is lighter than I expected.  Being co-written by George Clooney (with Grant Heslov) it has a wry sense of humor and a very easy pace (just like he seems to).  The relationships and camaraderie between the Men are completely believable.  Motivations are clear, there are nice twists here and there.  The locations are beautiful, the battle scenes or scenes of battle aftermath (what few there are) are filmed conservatively.  You understand the gravity of the loss of life, but Clooney (here as director) doesn't dose it with brutality or horror.  This is not the story of the human horrors of war, although we glimpse it.  This is a story about saving history and preserving the story of humanity.

My father taught acting at the college level for most of my life.  I never enrolled in one of his classes, but I went to enough of them that I learned by osmosis.  One of Dad's mantras for his students was "acting is reacting".  The Monuments Men is a master class in reacting.  Many scenes are without dialog for significant chunks of time and you don't miss it.  You get everything you need by reading these men's faces.  My favorite is a shower scene involving Bill Murray.  (Shot from the neck up - this is NOT a horror film, people!)  The emotion in Murray's face is simply beautiful.  It's (dare I say?) art.

So how did this film inspire me?  I immediately came home and started reading about the real Monuments Men.  The characters in the film were all so passionate and committed to their mission, I wanted to know more about their mission - and to find out if the characters were real people.  Except for two, the Jean Dujardin character and the Hugh Bonneville character, the men in the movie are "based on" real people.  The press release I was given addresses this:

Though many of the characters are inspired by real Monuments Men, Clooney and Heslov have invented characters for the film. “For the film, we wanted some of the characters to be flawed – we felt it would help the audience empathize with them as we tell the story,” Clooney explains. “But it’s not really fair to take a great man’s real name and then give him a flaw he didn’t have in real life.” Heslov adds: “I think our characters end up looking pretty heroic in the film, and if our movie inspires people do their own reading and find out that the real men were even more heroic, I’m okay with that."

These were men who could not serve in the regular army - most were too old, but the younger ones had physical defects that ruled them out.  This was the only way they could serve their country and they jumped at the chance.  They left their homes and their families, just like the infantrymen, to protect and preserve our history as human beings.  Clooney's character explains it by saying “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their houses to the ground, but somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed.”  This is why these men ventured across the ocean, into castles, warehouses and mines.

The Monuments Men still exist today.  Their mission is ongoing.  They recovered millions of stolen paintings, sculptures and artifacts during and after WWII, but there are still thousands missing.  Most are presumed destroyed.  However there are discoveries being made all the time in attics, barns and the like all across Europe.  There are several websites, and that are interactive and full of information.  I've been playing on them all morning. 

All in all, I was very pleased with the movie.  It's nice to have a big-ticket movie that is inspirational and family friendly.  I'm going to take my kids to see it (the reason for the PG-13 rating is "some images of war violence and historical smoking") and I expect to have some great conversations with them when we get home. 


Felecia said...

Popped over from #30days and must tell you that your review gives me impetus to see this movie. I was just talking to a friend of mine this morning and we mentioned that it's the movies that have turned out poorly that are hyped for months prior to their opening ... and this one was. Now, because of you, I may give it another chance!
Many thanks to your grandfather for his valiant service.

Cabin77 said...

Thank you Felecia! It really was an enjoyable film. I'd love to hear your thoughts once you've seen it.