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In spite of missed opportunities, 'The Monuments Men' gets overall message right

Cast members pose with real life Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger (center).
Cast members pose with real life Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger (center).
Photo by Jon Furniss, Invision/AP

To write a damn good thriller, fiction writer James Frey says you have to create a clever hero and send him or her on an urgent, impossible mission to foil evil for the benefit of others. In The Monuments Men, George Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov craft a cadre of clever heroes, charge them with the impossible mission of finding hundreds of thousands of artworks looted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 and send them on their way to foil the destruction of our cultural heritage by Hitler's minions, who've been told to burn it all up rather than let the Allies have the art back. The problem with the resulting movie, though, is its total lack of urgency, which undoubtedly explains why 77 of the 112 reviews the film has received so far have been less than complimentary.

Clooney is a smart guy. He could have certainly chosen to make The Monuments Men a quasi-documentary. But instead, he opted to make a "thriller" that fictionalizes the true life story of a handful of museum directors, architects and artists who scurried across war-torn Europe in the final months of World War II in a Quixote-like quest to find paintings, sculpture and other cultural artifacts that Hitler and the Nazis had confiscated mainly from Jewish dealers and collectors to populate a museum that Hitler intended to build in his hometown in Austria that would one day eclipse the the Met, the Hermitage and the Louvre.

Most people are not familiar with that story and would have likely been fascinated by a truer, more historically-accurate account brought to life with cinematic footage of great artworks and places like Mad King Ludwig's fairy tale castle at Neuschwanstein in the Bavarian Alps. (You know, the one that Walt Disney patterned Cinderella's Castle after.) But perhaps Clooney felt the need to "dumb down" the content in order to make the storyline more appealing to modern movie-going audiences accustomed to chase scenes and cartoon-inspired characters and similar caricatures.

But the problem with Clooney and Heslov's script is that The Monuments Men should have been written as a mystery rather than a thriller. The true thrust of Robert Edsel's book of the same name and the challenge faced by the real life Monuments Men was that few outside Hitler's inner circle of Sonderauftrag Linz art thieves really knew the breadth and scope of the Nazis' art looting operation and activities, never mind where they decided to stash the loot once it became clear they were going to lose the war. And that especially applied to the Allies, who'd only heard rumors of Hitler's machinations prior to landing on the shores of Normandy in June of 1944.

It is truly remarkable that the small band of under-resourced academics were able to ferret out the location and lineage of hundreds of thousands of artworks and recover them from the post-war Soviet zone before the Red Army laid claim to them as reparations. While it might seem reasonable that the Nazis would store their stolen treasure in a place like Neuschwanstein, who in the world would have suspected that the bulk of the Linz-bound booty would be hidden in a network of salt and copper mines interspersed throughout Germany and Austria?

Or that the salt mine in Altaussee, which held the Ghent altarpiece and Bruges Madonna that Clooney chose to feature in the movie, was almost blown to smithereens by August Eigruber, the local Nazi governer who refused to accept that Hitler had rescinded scorched earth or "Nero order" to destroy the mine and was determined to destroy all the artworks in the mine rather than let them fall into the hands of either the Americans or the hated Soviets.

While Clooney and Heslov missed the opportunity to write and produce a compelling mystery with clearly thrilling side plots, they did get their overall message right. What The Monuments Men conveys is the toll that the potential loss of our cultural patrimony takes on anyone who has ever marveled about the human drive to create and the evolution of culture over the centuries. In the beginning, Clooney's fictional Monuments Men were flip, arrogant and jocular. But by the movie's end, they'd become sober, somber and humbled. All of us would benefit from a couple of hours of reflection on the role that art plays in our culture, our society and our own lives, and for that reason, you should go see The Monuments Men in spite of all the bad reviews.

And at the risk of spoiling the ending, ask yourself the question posed at the movie's end: Is recovering a sculpture like Michelangelo's Madonna and Child (the Bruges Madonna) worth a life? The answer just might surprise you.

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