At the height of World War II, the Nazis were ransacking their conquered territories of a thousand years of art treasure. As the war turned against them, Hitler ordered all the treasures to be destroyed instead of falling into the hands of the Allies. President Roosevelt ordered the formation of a team of art historians, museum curators and directors to travel to the front lines of the war and beyond to find and save the priceless collections as “The Monuments Men.”
Being a WWII aficionado, I am very familiar with the efforts of the tiny presidential task force who did, indeed, lay their lives on the line to save the world’s treasure from Nazi destruction. Unfortunately, the film, Clooney’s fifth as director, falls flat. One problem, I think, is one of scope: the real Monuments Men numbered in the hundreds and were from some 13 countries. In Clooney’s world, the MM’s number a mere seven. And, the seven are divided in one or two man teams sent to scour war-torn Europe for stolen art. The result is a series of vignettes that jump from one team to another in their search for the stolen art.
“The Monuments Men” follows a well-worn path traveled by other films such as “The Dirty Dozen.” Here, the need for the mission is established, mainly through newsreel of Nazis goose-stepping across Europe, looting the great museums of Europe to fill Hitler’s massive never-built Fuehrer museum. FDR declares the save-the-art mission with Frank Stokes (George Clooney) in command. Stokes selects six other experts – James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville – to scour Europe for stolen art. The team must undergo army training (to some comic relief) and deployment to Europe. This is where the film loses cohesion.
When the seven-man team breaks up – with Murray joining with Balaban, Goodman with Dujardin and the others going solo – the film fragments as it follows the five divergent paths of the experts on their mission. Add to this the confused romantic interlude between Granger and French art expert, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a secret resistance member working for the Nazis and we have too much going on with not enough substance. The routine everyman-as-heroes story does not allow any of the characters to develop beyond two-dimensions. It is actually a waste of some great talent.
The subject matter, if you look into it, is a fascinating and amazing story of courageous men and women risking their lives, and sometimes losing them, to preserve the great art of Europe and return it to the rightful owners. “The Monuments Men” only highlights the events, making the film a series of shorts, edited together, of the exploits of each team member. The world War II detail is well handled, as is recreating all of the magnificent art that was almost destroyed – sadly, Hitler’s minion did destroy some of there loot, depriving the world of untold treasures. It is too bad that the movie does not match its subject. I give it a C+.
Priests disassemble the Ghent Alterpiece, preparing to hide it from approaching Nazi troops. In Paris, Dr. Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi, "Downfall") shows a trove of masterpieces collected at the Jeu de Paume gallery to Hermann Goering (Udo Kroschwald, "The Pianist"), who selects one for the Fuhrer's Berchtesgaden retreat. Back in the U.S., Harvard art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney) gets the approval to form a team of six to join the military to save European art works as "The Monuments Men."
Cowriter (with producing partner Grant Heslov)/director George Clooney tries to make an old-timey war movie with an international cast but there's little momentum in "Monuments." Each of the seven are given one defining character trait. Clooney is the art preacher, 'Downton Abbey's' Hugh Bonneville's Donald Jeffries is an alcoholic looking for paternal redemption, Matt Damon's James Granger only thinks he can speak French, Jean Dujardin's Jean Claude Clermont *is* French, John Goodman's Walter Garfield is seriously out of shape, Bob Balaban's meek Preston Savitz is only made Private and Bill Murray's Richard Campbell is, well, Bill Murray. Attempts to make the characters (all based on real people but given different names here) richer result in mostly non sequiturs that, while playing OK in and of themselves, don't flesh anybody out and slow down the action.
Speaking of action, there's precious little, at least until some contrived race-the-clock moments near the film's end. And speaking of contrivance, every time the men find hidden artwork, pieces of it are always on display amidst the more carefully crated remainder. One piece is even 'found' having been used as a piece of furniture, a tossed off 'twist' at the expense of believability.
Goodman is paired with Dujardin and Murray with Balaban while Clooney commands via radio, Bonneville defies orders to protect a Madonna with personal meaning and Damon's sent to Jeu de Paume because of his linguistic claims (the subtitles revealing his mangled syntax play like a Clooney prank). There he tries to get information from Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), the French gallery curator who knows the whereabouts of the art disseminated from her gallery but doesn't trust the Americans to return it to its rightful owners (the Russians having already stated their intention to keep what they find as reparation for their war dead). Even Blanchett's a let down here, playing two notes - clipped earnestness, then high spirited flirtation.
Although two of the team lose their lives for the cause (and Clooney works hard to tell us their lives were not given in vain), only one moment in the film is truly moving, when his Stokes 'introduces' his translator/driver, the German Jew Sam (Dimitri Leonidas, "Centurion"), to the Rembrandt self portrait which was stolen from his Dutch home town but which he'd never been able to see. A shot of the Germans torching paintings (the Nazis vowed to destroy the art rather than surrender it) is shocking, but we're not given enough context as to how much was really lost. Early on we see Stokes's scuttled efforts to redirect American bombs away from art treasures, but again, we're given little idea just how successful this arm of the endeavor was.
Composer Alexandre Desplat, who also plays a small role, gets Clooney's concept with a snare heavy score that sends us back to another generation's war movies and German locations provide the film an authentic backdrop, but "The Monuments Men" is as lifeless as a block of marble yet to be chiseled. (For a more thorough look at this angle of WWII, check out the documentary "The Rape of Europa." For a more exciting telling of the tale, look for John Frankenheimer's 1965 film "The Train.")
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