Watch: The Monuments Men
Directed by George Clooney (Columbia Pictures, 2014)
They didn’t storm the beaches at Normandy or liberate Paris. But the real-life “Monuments Men”—a special unit tasked with recovering masterpieces of art that the Nazis had stolen as they took over Europe—may have been just as important to the war effort, or so George Clooney’s latest film claims.
Clooney himself stars as Frank Stokes, the leader of a group of museum curators and scholars who find themselves whisked off to basic training. The movie can seem hokey at times, with forced-sounding 1940s dialogue and language barriers disappearing when convenient. But where the film truly shines is the all-star cast. The Monuments Men—played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban—project true camaraderie, though it’s worth noting the men would not have been nearly as successful without the help of the only female character, played by a shrewd Cate Blanchett.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the group doesn’t appear as a unit more often. The men were essentially split up into pairs, and the first portion of the film is spent jumping across European locales. Viewers may want to brush up on European geography to help keep track of who is pursuing what and where.
Catholics may especially appreciate the focus on two famous pieces of art that are themselves main characters in the film: the Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. In a particularly moving scene, as Bonneville helps Belgian priests barricade the church that houses the Madonna against the Nazis, one priest stops to ask if Bonneville is Catholic. Bonneville pauses and responds, “I am tonight.”
The mission was not without loss—of art or of the men themselves—and there are traces of the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust. It only reinforces the film’s message: Our culture was worth the ultimate sacrifice.
This article appeared in the April 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 4, page 42).