The Monuments Men
Director(s): George Clooney
Writer(s): George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)Feb 7, 2014 - Wide
George Clooney stars in, directed, and co-wrote (with partner Grant Heslov) the new World War II film The Monuments Men. The film is based on the true story of the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives force composed of academics who underwent basic training and then headed to Europe to try and save the great cultural works that were being looted and/or destroyed by the Nazis.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, who convinces a somewhat reluctant FDR that, even with victory on the horizon, the loss of cultural achievements is a huge loss to a civilization and its identity. He tells the president that, “You can wipe out a generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll come back, but if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s as if they never existed.”
Given the greenlight, his team heads into the war with their mission to save art and buildings, a task not given 100% backing by commanders in the field. James Granger (Matt Damon) goes behind enemy lines in Paris, trying to convince Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), the secretary of a Nazi officer, to help him track down the hidden art. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), tries to seek redemption from the bottle by protecting the Madonna of Bruges. Campbell and Savitz (Bill Murray and Bob Balaban) try to locate the Ghent Altarpiece while trying not to kill each other, while Garfield and Clermont (John Goodman and Jean Dujardin) scour the countryside collecting information on potential hiding places. The team is joined by a young Jewish German-born U.S. soldier (Dimitri Leonidas) who acts as a driver and translator.
Anyone expecting a sweeping battle epic with the skies full of planes and the battlefields full of tanks has entered the wrong cinema. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan, it’s Saving Mona Lisa. While history books will often show wars as maps with huge arrows showing massive advances, soldiers will tell you that wars aren’t about massive battles, but rather a collection of small moments. A sniper in a farmhouse, an encounter with a stray enemy. The Monuments Men is full of these vignettes involving the various pairings.
I ultimately like The Monuments Men because of the small moments that a group of talented actors have assembled. As an audience member, I enjoyed spending time with these characters. The film, however, does have some problems, a fact even George Clooney must have realized when he pulled it out of an awards-contending October release to re-edit and send out into the cinematic cold zone of February.
The film has a problem balancing its tone. It wants to strike a dramatic message about the importance of culture and history, so important in our modern day world of cultural ADD, but it also wants to be a wartime adventure film like The Great Escape. It wants to discuss the Nazi appropriation of Jewish property during the Holocaust, while cracking wise with the odd couple pairing of Balaban and Murray. Perhaps “balance” is the exact word to use here. The most cinematic weight comes from a comedy that can pull the heart in dramatic moments or a drama that cuts the tension with just the right joke. The Monuments Men is forever in the middle, never committing to one form or the other. In many ways, Clooney has made the sort of film that would be released for the troops during the war: enough spirit-lifting laughs to buoy them with not too much drama to weigh them down.
As I said, though, ultimately I like The Monuments Men despite its flaws. Perhaps it’s because I agreed with the mission and I applaud Clooney for tackling a subject that so many would pass on.