On a cold Saturday night a few weeks ago, after clicking around Netflix for a while, my husband and I decided to watch The Untouchables. He hadn't seen it since college; I'd never seen it at all.
The 1987 film starred Kevin Costner as good guy government agent Eliot Ness, whose mission is to bring down Al Capone (Robert De Niro), with the mentorship of jaded but gutsy cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) and his small band of brave guys, all set against the backdrop of Prohibition Chicago.
This being a historic picture, we know how it ends—Ness finally manages to take down Capone, but not without cost. The film ends with a shot of Costner walking down the street. The camera rises and pulls backward to take in the bustling street as Ness fades into the crowd. It's a consummately American story: justice has been served, good has won the day, bad is locked up, and the cowboy rides off into the proverbial sunset.
As the credits rolled, I turned to my husband and said, "Man, you could never make a movie this unironically positive today." And he nodded. I tend to think the reports of our national disillusionment are greatly exaggerated, but twenty-five years after The Untouchables, it's hard to find a movie that's as straightforwardly optimistic about the good guys beating the bad ones, and as certain that the good guys are the ones who seem to embody the classically American cowboy virtues of independence and selflessness and generosity (and broad-shoulderedness).
Just look at our superhero movies.
Well, anyhow, George Clooney didn't get the memo, and The Monuments Men is the result. Clooney's in the film and directed it, too. As is his wont in movies he's directed (Good Night, and Good Luck., Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Leatherheads), he rounded up his buddies to be in the movie, too. So this one has a cast with Oceans-level chance of bringing the house down: Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville (Downton's Lord Grantham), and Jean Dujardin.
The film tells the story of the actual "Monuments Men," a group of slightly-over-the-hill art experts and architects tasked by the Allies with protecting, recovering, and returning the great works of art that had been stolen from private collectors all over Europe, many Jewish, by the Nazis.
Given the talent behind it, it's almost unbelievable that Monuments Men isn't a romping good time, or at least a heart-thumping one. At its best moments, the movie lopes along in a sort of good-natured trot, as if you crossed Spielberg with Capra. It's a war buddy comedy that isn't too manly to shed some tears and hug.
The thing is, on some level The Monuments Men is a completely fine movie. You could almost call it "inspirational"; it's all about sacrifice and the greater good and the importance of saving the roots of civilization, not just winning wars. It's the kind of movie that grandparents and their grandkids can all watch together and feel good about themselves afterward.
But it's also just, well . . . I hate to say it, but it's really dull.
And that's the problem: this is a fascinating story! It's about how art is the soul of our civilization, and about how preserving a culture might be worth even dying for. In some ways, it's a deeply conservative movie: it's sure that the best of the past is worth hanging on to.
One problem might be related to The Untouchables: it's a little hard to believe these people are real. One character, played by Bonneville, is (we're told) haunted by some real demons. But everyone else is given barely more than a second to become a character. Damon's character has a moment or two where he has to make big moral choices, but we never really imagine it's much of a struggle. These are the good guys. They do the right thing.
That makes it easy and comfortable to watch, but it does render the film a bit flat, further compounded by the fact that pretty much everyone in this movie is either one of the good guys or just a good guy caught up in a situation bigger than him: a German soldier, for instance, who's just doing his job. The only truly bad dudes are Hitler (obviously) and two Nazi soldiers whose evilness is clearly indicated in large hand gestures.
A bigger problem is with the movie itself. It's trying to make a strong argument that art is as important to a civilization as anything else—perhaps the most important thing. It argues that it's important to conserve not just for its economic value, for what it's worth to collectors, but because it belongs in a sense to all of us. This movie believes in the greater good, and believes that our common good is tied up with our cultural artifacts and the stories we tell about ourselves.
Today, movies are that shared art for everyone, even as they grapple with how to remain financially viable. They're one of the last forms we have that are experienced and discussed on a broad, nation-spanning level. On some level, Clooney knows that. He keeps making historical (and historically-informed) movies that ride that dangerous line between meaningful and preachy. Sometimes he pulls it off.
But nothing about The Monuments Men would inspire someone to go into art-making or art-conserving as their life's work. It doesn't inspire belief in its premise; at best, it asserts it, in way, way too many voiceovers by Clooney. Your average art-lover (or movie-lover) gets how important art is, and might nod along.
But if you're aiming to make your audience believe something about art's vitality, then show them how important it is. Don't just let Clooney's rumbly baritone say it over shots of art.
There are some moments when the movie walks up to that line—one in particular, where some of the art is torched by Reich soldiers, made me gulp. But on the whole, it veers too far into substituting bland, broad joking, touching vignettes, and sonorous voiceovers for doing what movies do best: help us feel what's important on a gut level.
All that said, The Monuments Men is okay, if you don't expect too much from it. It's a fine rainy-Saturday movie.
But shouldn't we expect more from our art?
The movie is rated PG-13 for "some images of war violence and historical smoking"; the MPAA failed to note in their rating that there's a few profanities, all of the s*** variety. A woman suggests to a married man that he could spend the night at her place, but he doesn't. "War violence" equals a few people getting shot and dying. They do smoke quite a bit. This is World War II.