I saw an early screening of the new George Clooney film The Monuments Men last night. Based on the exploits of a group of men whose mission was to locate, protect, and recover countless pieces of art that had been stolen by the Nazis during World War II, Director Clooney does an admirable job establishing the somewhat apathetic nature of the military establishment towards their mission.
Do not take that last sentence as an indictment of the military. Clooney exonerates the Allied forces when he is seen explaining his plan to President Roosevelt. The military could not perform the task of defeating the Nazis while worrying about tracking down paintings and sculptures; it is not what they are designed to do, hence the need for the group that came to be known as the Monument Men.
The cast is wonderful. Along with Clooney, there is Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh “don’t-call-me-Lord-Grantham” Bonneville. They all give great performances, especially Bill Murray. While he maintains a somewhat comical “hate-hate” relationship with Balaban, it is a very quiet one. In one of the best scenes in the film, Murray never says a word, but simply listens to a recorded Christmas message from his daughter. A very moving segment.
Further evidence of the effectiveness of Clooney’s direction of the story is the fact
that every time the Nazis were depicted destroying some cache of their stolen art, there were audible moans and gasps from the audience.
The only remotely negative thing I can say about the film concerns the relationship between Clooney and Damon. Despite having limited screen time together, every time they interacted on screen I felt like I was watching some weird, period, Ocean’s-11 outtakes.
This is definitely a movie worth seeing, not so much as an accurate historical record of the events and people and what they did, but more as a reminder of why they did what they did, and the importance of not simply saving a people or recapturing a plot of land, but of saving those things that make the people/country what it is. If a people’s history is lost, then the remaining people are no longer the ones that existed before, but are, instead, some new, disconnected beings, separate from their now non-existent past.
I cannot help but think that there is a parallel to be drawn between that sentiment and the establishment of Israel in the aftermath of the war. Whatever one’s position on the existence of a Jewish state, it perfectly encapsulates the idea that without a history, an entire people can be erased, discarded, forgotten. Hitler tried to do this and failed. Even today, this is happening around the world, as despots and tyrants try to erase or revise history to their own ends. It is up to all of us to prevent that, to become protectors of the past however we can. If not, the next past to be erased may be our own.
That is the message to take from The Monuments Men.