Truth Rings Out Softly

The Monuments Men (courtesy Sony Pictures)
“Truth Rings Out Softly”
A Review of The Monuments Men by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, /A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels

            “Who cares about art?” Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) wonders reflexively as he tries to convince Franklin Roosevelt to let him take a team of soldiers into WWII Europe to save precious masterpieces such as the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child from the fleeing Nazis. Hitler cared little for human beings but quite a lot for art; he indented to steal the entirety of Europe’s artistic heritage and house it in a monstrously large Führer Museum. As Hitler’s thousand year Reich comes to an end, he authors the Nero Degree, ordering his officers to destroy everything. Roosevelt agrees to let Stokes form a small group of specialists including an architect, museum curator, and four other nerdy 40 somethings that have no business on the battlefield in an attempt to stem the tide.
            The Monuments Men is probably one of the safest films ever made on WWII. If not for period accurate constant cigarette smoking, it may have gotten a PG rating. It is so beautifully quite. There are no extended battle scenes, little swearing, and all the hunks never bare their chests. It is a life affirming picture about the importance of culture told in a witty and subtle manner. Like a restorationtist who labors carefully over every fiber of a 13th century tapestry, writer/director George Clooney treats his film carefully. The dialogue is clever but not pretentious, the pacing suspenseful but not tense, and every character, even the evil ones, matter.
            The film follows the traditional ship of fools narrative with a funny group of characters thrown into an unusual situation, all played by seasoned actors like John Goodman, Matt Damon, and Jean Dujardin. When they arrive at Normandy well after the fighting, the commanding officer is infuriated with their orders: “You want to tell my my men what they can and can’t blow up?!” That pretty much sums it up. Fortunately, they find French secretary Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who knows where the Nazis hid the art. The journey to find these priceless artifacts contains a variety of funny and often touching vignettes. Sgt. Walter Garfield (Goodman) and Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Durjarden) are attacked by sniper rifle while walking through the ruins of a town. Realizing that neither of them have ever fired a gun in real combat, they bicker over who will get the sniper and who will be the distraction. When they find the sniper, it’s a nine year-old. They throw him in a POW camp like the attitude of a parent putting a rebellious child on timeout. The clashing personalities, witty writing, and light music create a nostalgic throwback to classic WWII comedies like Kelley’s Heroes. It’s a good family film designed for the Greatest Generation.
            A surprisingly refreshing element of Men is the devotion that each soldier has to their families. They are always talking about their kids, their wives, and life back across the Atlantic. There’s an especially beautiful scene when Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) receives record as a Christmas present but can’t play it due to lack of equipment. While taking a shower that night, he hears the voice of his wife and kids singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” His colleague managed to find a way to broadcast it across the camp so everyone could have a little home away from home. In another scene, Claire invited Lt. James Granger (Damon) over to her apartment to celebrate the end of the war and give him important information. When he hesitates, she simply replies, “It’s Paris.” When he arrives that night, she is elegantly dressed and he doesn’t have a tie. She gives him a tie and invitation to stay the night. He reaches out his hand, prominently displaying the wedding ring, then touches her on the sholder, thanks her for the tie, and politely leaves. It’s a mezmorizing display of chastity but also tenderness. He is grateful for her help in recovering the art but faithful to his wife.
            Early in the film, Stokes tells his men that must be very careful and not take risks. “Your life is more important than art,” he tells them. This, of course, is true. Art sings God.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on February 13th, 2014.