Review: The Monuments Men
PLOT: At the height of the Second World War, an Allied unit composed of museum directors, art historians, and curators is sent behind enemy lines to recover priceless works of art, stolen by the Nazis, and destined for Germany. As the war starts to wind down, their mission becomes even more urgent, with Adolf Hitler imposing the “Nero decree” which orders the destruction of all art seized by the Nazis before it can be reclaimed by its rightful owners.
REVIEW: Despite the hundreds- thousands even- of movies made about the Second World War, there are seemingly unlimited amounts of untold stories that in the right hands could be turned into white knuckle, educational and inspiring entertainment. THE MONUMENTS MEN highlights the efforts of a real group, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, that really was composed of the types of men depicted here, who risked- and occasionally gave- their lives to preserve the cultural heritage of all the lands plundered by the Nazis.
While this is the first film to deal specifically with the “Monuments Men”, in 1965, director John Frankenheimer made one of the great war-action movies on the same subject, THE TRAIN, which starred Burt Lancaster as a French Resistance member trying to prevent the Nazis from fleeing France with priceless artwork. Clooney's gone of record saying that film was a major influence on THE MONUMENTS MEN, to the extent that the real-life counterpart to Cate Blanchett's character actually wrote the book THE TRAIN was loosely based on.
The only way THE MONUMENTS MEN really suffers is in direct comparison to THE TRAIN, which is a masterpiece and gives the story a personal resonance and urgency this film lacks. Otherwise, this distinguishes itself as a unique, entertaining war film that's inexplicably being given a hard time by the critics, seemingly only due to the fact that it's not the opus people seemed to be expecting from Clooney. Sure, it won't win any Oscars, but that doesn't seem to be the goal here. Rather, this is more in line with Clooney's OCEAN'S movies, and save for the occasional moment of gravitas the tone remains light. In some ways it feels like a lost war caper from the fifties, the kind where instead of George Clooney and Matt Damon, you might have gotten Cary Grant or William Holden- right down to the jaunty musical score by Alexandre Desplat, in the style of Elmer Bernstein circa THE GREAT ESCAPE.
In that sense, MONUMENTS MEN feels almost retro, with a non-cynical patriotic tone, thoroughly despicable Nazi villains, and a bunch of likable character actors, all of whom give it their all. It's not a complex movie, nor is it trying to be. Clooney, in addition to co-writing and directing, plays the marginal lead, George L. Stout, one of the few characters that doesn't seem to be fictionalized. Looking sharp with his Errol Flynn/Clark Gable-style moustache, Clooney plays the part like Danny Ocean in uniform, and one can't say it doesn't play to his strengths. Matt Damon- who's always been part of Clooney's core ensemble- probably has the biggest part as a historian sent into occupied France on the basis that he's “fluent in French”, which winds up being one of the funniest jokes in the movie as he “learned it in Montreal” with his broken, Anglo-Quebec way of speaking the language not going over too well with La Resistance (having seen the film in Montreal, I can tell you this got a HUGE laugh). Much of the film is devoted to his relationship with Blanchett, as a Frenchwoman coerced into helping catalogue the Nazi inventory of art stolen from France's Jewish population, and devoted to righting this wrong. As always, Blanchett thoroughly disappears into the part.
Most of the real humor comes from Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, who are made unlikely partners, although Murray has one of the most affecting moments in the film where he breaks down into tears after hearing a phonograph Christmas greeting recorded by his grandchildren. John Goodman, and Jean Dujardin are another unlikely pair, with Dujardin- especially- playing the type of “Hollywood Frenchman” (constantly smoking, smiling and/or wearing a beret) a guy like Charles Boyer played in the era this movie is set in, but it suits the tone of the film. Of the cast, Hugh Bonneville from DOWNTON ABBEY gets to tug at the heartstrings the most, as a disgraced aristocrat (not unlike Lord Grantham) trying to redeem himself on the battlefield.
Of course, THE MONUMENTS MEN is a far cry from the serious type of WW2 movie that wins Oscars, and it's no wonder Clooney moved it out of the Awards season, as it's simply not that kind of movie- outside of a few somber moments that acknowledge the horror of war, such as a disturbing scene where the team finds a barrel-full of thousands of gold teeth. The thing is, THE MONUMENTS MEN is not trying to be a war epic, and for that Clooney's being criticized, which is odd. This is a deliberately old-fashioned WW2 adventure that shines a light on a little known chapter of the war, and while it's short on war movie action, it never ceases to entertain. If you keep your expectations in check, you should have a great time.