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Based on its trailer, its title, and its seriously A-list cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett are only a few of the big names here), The Monuments Men might not be quite the movie audiences were expecting. Certainly the film’s tagline—the greatest art heist in history—implies something akin to an Indiana Jones adventure where the U.S. military recruits a small team of architects, museum curators, and sculptors to steal the world’s greatest masterpieces back from the Nazis.
Yet Clooney, who both stars and directs, does something less expected with the true story based on Robert Edsel’s book of the same name. He uses it as a quiet, yet eminently witty and entertaining meditation on Western culture and the value of art, particularly Christian art.
“We’re fighting for our way of life,” art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) explains to an incredulous commanding officer who can’t understand why the army should risk men and resources for the sake of a hunk of stone. Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges is more than a thing of a beauty, Stokes insists, it is a representation of our values and our faith. If the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit) fails to retrieve it, then Hitler, though he loses the war, will still have achieved a significant victory against liberty.
What may surprise viewers most about the film (rated PG-13 for language, most of which involves the Lord’s name) is its unabashedly patriotic tone. The notoriously left-leaning Clooney has often been a critic of American military action, and suggested with previous films like Syriana that the war on terror is motivated by greed for oil.
It’s ironic then that he doesn’t make any connection between the fascists of 1945 who tried to rob the world of great art and the fascists of the 21st century who would destroy it entirely. Yet the next time audiences see headlines about the Muslim Brotherhood vandalizing cathedrals or al-Qaeda destroying centuries-old statues, they may remember The Monuments Men and why protecting our art, as Frank Stokes puts it, means protecting “the very foundations of our society.”