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War Movies Used to be Big, Sprawling Things. What Happened?

The trend of small-minded war movies continues

Courtesy Sony Pictures

Last year, Walter Kirn lamented the state of the ever-shrinking American war movie. “The war movies that I was raised on,” he wrote, referring to such World War II classics as Patton or The Longest Day, “celebrated great, concerted military blows administered by masses of humble soldiers against monolithic armies of the misled.” This democratic tradition, he noted, sadly gave way to the sort of highly specialized action celebrated by films like Captain Phillips and Zero Dark Thirty, in which a small band of impeccably trained brothers emerged from the cover of darkness to uphold America’s interests and to punish its enemies. 

The Monuments Men, directed and co-written by George Clooney, takes this shift a step further. Instead of Navy Seals, its uniformed men are a gaggle of art historians, curators, architects, and other incurably civilian folk rushing to the front lines of World War II to save precious works of art from the talons of the Nazis. Portrayed by an all-star cast (Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, and Clooney himself), the Monuments Men may not have muscles to match those of the commandos who dominate so much of contemporary cinema, but they do share their more hardened brothers’ fundamental worldview: namely, that war is largely a game that is best won by dropping in, kicking ass, and bolting out.

Sony Pictures

The Monuments Men, however, are more Ph.D. than CIA, and the action they see is particularly subdued: As Clooney and company traipse around Europe, the carnage suggests a baddish car crash rather than the most cataclysmic bloodletting in modern history. Some real violence would have done The Monuments Men a world of good, making us believe that the Monuments Men have something real at stake. But violence has never been Clooney’s thing; after a slew of anti-war movies, most notably David O. Russell’s masterful Three Kings, he has finally found a story of men in battle he can embrace, replacing tanks with triptychs and tough nobodies with scholars whose job it is to hover above the scrum and apply their highly cultivated and uncommon taste.

It’s this limited lens that makes The Monuments Men the latest in a line of myopic movies about war. The Monuments Men themselves are decent, kind, and courageous, but their passion never transcends far above the gleefully academic. They may be willing to die for a container full of Old Masters, but that, we sense, is chiefly because the Old Masters are, for men who spend their days lying on their backs and restoring dusty masterpieces, the only ones worth acknowledging. A fleeting example of this aloof worldview comes into focus when Damon discovers a small and unimportant portrait stolen from a Jewish home in Paris. Not understanding exactly what had happened to the painting’s former owners, he goes to their residence, and, of course, finds it empty. In what is meant to be one of the film’s most emotionally satisfying moments, he hangs the portrait back in its old spot on the wall, and for a moment there we feel his conviction that retrieving the painting is a testament to culture’s triumph over the dark forces plotting to extinguish it.

It’s not.

Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think of a game I used to play when I was in college and free time and controlled substances were both plentiful. At some point, usually late at night, someone would posit the following question: a building is burning, and you’ve a chance to save just one of its two occupants. The first is a cherubic child; the second the world’s last surviving copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare. Who would you rescue? Usually, the game would run its course within moments, and always for the same reason—the premise was ridiculous. If you took it seriously, it stood to reason that you believed that works of art and human life were somehow antithetical to each other, and that when the flames ran high you could really only have one.

Sony Pictures

Even late at night, even under the influence, my friends and I were sober enough to know that art and life are neither interchangeable nor diametrically opposed but intertwined, dependant on each other for meaning and nourishment. And yet, burdened by the accusation that it is frivolous to worry about saving art without having extended the same courtesy to so many millions of people, The Monuments Men argues the opposite; if the Michelangelo stands erect, it seems to suggest, then the good guys have won. 

It’s a perfectly honorable point of view. It’s also the kind of sentiment no one who ever had to fight in the trenches—with the grunts, not with the commandoes—would ever seriously entertain. Anyone involved in a truly collaborative process—like fighting a war, say, or making art—knows that what we cherish is not the canvas or the marble or the paint, but the fragile web of social, economic, philosophical, religious, and romantic ties that, every now and then, produces something of lasting value. And that something is much more than a sculpture or a sketch; in and of itself, even a Michelangelo is meaningless. Any work of art is. There is nothing intrinsic to the Madonna of Ghent or to any other wonder, exquisite as it may be, that makes it priceless, nothing, that is, except the prints of the thousand dirty fingers that made it possible. When you pry a work of art from context and display it on a pedestal, it loses all vitality. It becomes an abstraction, not interesting enough even if plastered with five or six very famous faces. The Monuments Men’s defense of the value of art is well-meaning, but by confusing the process with the object, and the culture with the museum pieces it has produced, the movie, like a slab of untouched marble, comes off as lifeless.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet magazine.