'The Monuments Men': A Liberal's Ode to the Greatest Generation—And the Threat That Poses to Both Parties
Okay, let’s stipulate that the new George Clooney/Matt Damon movie, The Monuments Men, is getting mostly bad reviews. According to rottentomatoes.com, just 33 percent of film critics nationwide liked the film. And here at Breitbart News, John Hayward derided the movie as “one of the most ill-conceived major studio releases ever.”
But is it really that bad? The film took in $22.7 million over the weekend, which is not great, but neither is it a bomb.
The Monuments Men is inherently interesting because US history is inherently interesting. In particular, the history of America in World War Two is very interesting, because it represents perhaps our greatest collective triumph.
And so despite the bad reviews, The Monuments Men is important because it reminds us of the days when the United States could do big things; it’s a glimpse at the old “Can Do!” America. “Can Do!” was the unofficial motto of the Navy Seabees—immortalized in a 1944 John Wayne movie—but it’s fair to say that “Can Do!” was the effective motto of the country as a whole during “The Good War.”
After all, only a “Can Do!” country could have put 16 million men and women in uniform, armed them with a staggering quantity and quality of new weapons, shipped most of them overseas, and prevailed against three fascist empires, all in less than four years.
The Monuments Men tells a true story of that war—as true, that is, as most Hollywood movies ever get. In June 1943, after it became clear that the Allies were going to win, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe, chaired by a Republican Supreme Court Justice, Owen Roberts. The Commission in turn put in motion the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MMF&A) section of the US Army.
The MMF&A totaled only fifteen men during the war. Yet small in number as they might have been, the Monuments Men were nevertheless an important part of overall US strategy. After all, America’s goal was not merely to win the war, but also to win the peace, and that meant staving off yet another bout of extremism on the continent, right or left. It was thus in our security interest to see the survival of important cultural artifacts that would help anchor post-war Europeans in their own rooted traditions, as opposed to seeing them drift off into some new radicalism.
On May 26, 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, issued a general order to his troops:
Shortly we will be fighting our way across the Continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.
Eisenhower was hardly a war leader who put art appreciation ahead of the lives of this men. On many occasions, American forces chose to flatten an enemy position—with bombs, artillery, or both—no matter how culturally important the site might have been. Yet the directive set a valuable tone of care and respect for important and sacred objects and places.
Indeed, Ike’s order might even have had a positive effect on the other side. During their six years of marauding and plundering across Europe, the Nazis stole some five million works of art, carrying most of their loot back to Germany—and, of course, they destroyed much more. Yet three months after Ike’s order, in August 1944, an apparent attack of conscience kept the Nazi military governor of Paris, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, from following Hitler’s orders to destroy Paris, a sequence of events immortalized in the 1966 movie Is Paris Burning?.
So as we can see, The Monuments Men is situated in times of epic importance. And the Americans are the good guys; not only do Clooney & Co. save lots of art from the Nazis, but in a bit of Cold War foreshadowing, they also stave off the looters of the Red Army, who are intent on stealing the stolen objects and carrying them back to the USSR.
In fact, the film is so patriotic and anti-communist that it deeply offended the trendy, liberal sensibilities of the art critic for The Washington Post, one Philip Kennicott; the poor man was so upset by The Monuments Men that he made Clooney sound like a, gasp, Republican:
Clooney uses this story to assert his own ideology, a farrago of Hollywood banalities that align remarkably well with standard-issue beliefs about capitalism, freedom and America. Struggle and you will succeed; everyone can rise above their demons; teamwork will lead to success; faith in yourself is the key to everything.
Yes, when a standard-issue MSM-er such as Kennicott starts opining on “standard-issue beliefs about capitalism, freedom and America,” the message is clear: A good liberal such as Clooney should know better than to agree with the middlebrow “booboisie.” That is, a member of the smart set should not fall into the trap of depicting America as a good country where, for example, hard work and teamwork lead to success, at home and abroad.
It’s possible, of course, that Clooney is a Kennicott-type liberal who made a patriotic movie—with the word “men” in the title, no less!—only because he wants to pander to a Middle American audience and thus sell lots of tickets.
Yet it’s also possible that Clooney is sincere. After all, there are lots of ways to make money in Hollywood—so why make a patriotic war movie? So we must consider the possibility that Clooney is sincere in his praise for America’s victory in World War Two, and sincere in his admiration for what the men of the Greatest Generation—and they were mostly men—accomplished.
In other words, Clooney might not be a Kennicott-type liberal, but rather, an FDR-type liberal. There’s a difference—a big difference.
Kennicott Liberals worry that Americans might feel proud of their history. By contrast, FDR Liberals made history. They mobilized the country to avenge Pearl Harbor, defeat our enemies, liberate hundreds of millions, and end the Holocaust. We might also note that FDR Liberals did things that even todays’s conservatives might have a hard time doing; on June 6, 1944, for example, FDR went on nationwide radio to announce the D-Day invasion, and then he led the nation in a prayer for victory:
In this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer: Almighty God, our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
The Commander-in-Chief described the noble cause of the American armed forces:
They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Roosevelt did not shrink from describing the sacrifices involved:
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
Next, FDR described duty on the homefront:
And for us at home—fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas—whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them—help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
We might note, one more time, FDR’s use of the word “men.” No platitudes about diversity there; indeed, to a contemporary liberal ear, Roosevelt’s stipulation of “brave men” might seem to be a deliberate and cruel swipe at the non-brave, who surely should enjoy some sort of compensatory victim status.
So what to make of Clooney and his beliefs today? The actor strongly supported Obama in both his election bids, and yet from all the evidence, it seems that Obama is closer to Kennicott than he is to FDR.
But even so, maybe Clooney isn’t entirely happy with Obama, even as he deems him to be preferable to the Republicans.
Maybe Clooney has had a patriotic epiphany, in the way that Steven Spielberg had a patriotic epiphany when he made Saving Private Ryan back in 1998. Indeed, Spielberg not only made that remarkable film, but he also produced two multi-part World War Two epics for HBO, Band of Brothers and The Pacific.
Is Spielberg still a liberal? Sure he is. And so is Tom Hanks. And Clooney and Damon. But by their works, much more than their words or even their votes, we shall know them. Spielberg, Hanks, and Clooney have made films that celebrate an America of honor and courage—an America that seems mostly like a distant memory today. It’s that "Can Do!" America of big vision, big goals, and big deeds that seems to attract some of today’s liberals. And that’s interesting, because the idea of patriotic and purposeful "Can Do!" America poses a challenge to the contemporary orthodoxy of both political parties.
To be sure, Obama is no FDR. He lacks the vision of FDR, and he also lacks the competence.
Yet over here on the political right, we ought to ask ourselves: Do our leaders measure up to the FDR standard? Or for that matter, to the Truman standard or the Eisenhower standard? Do they have the vision? The competence? If they were in charge today, would they know how to make America great again? Does the presidency of, say, George W. Bush leave us certain that if the Republicans were back in charge things would get dramatically better?
If we were to admit the possibility that the answer to all those questions might be “no,” then we can see that there’s a hole in the middle of our politics. It’s a hole that was once filled by FDR and the Greatest Generation and their shared spirit of "Can Do!" It’s a hole that could be filled—to the horror of the likes of Philip Kennicott—by “standard-issue beliefs about capitalism, freedom and America,” combined with a World War Two-ish sense of goal-driven purposefulness. Such purposefulness, we might note, applies not just to winning wars; it also applies to the big projects of the early post-war era, including NATO and the architecture of the Cold War, nuclear power, the interstate highways, the polio vaccine, and the space program.
It seems fair to say that neither party today is filling that "Can Do!" hole. Okay, so be it.
Yet in the meantime, The Monuments Men exists to remind us that great and heroic things are possible, desirable—and popular.