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Something less than monumental, The Monuments Men wears its noble purpose on its sleeve when either greater grit or more irreverence could have spun the same tale to modern audiences with more punch and no loss of import. Agreeably patterned after classic World War II films in which a small unit of guys trumps the enemy’s best-laid plans, George Clooney‘s fifth big-screen directorial outing is a sympathetic account of the urgent U.S.-led effort to save treasure troves of looted artwork hidden by Nazis, who are bent on destroying them as they retreat in defeat. The Sony release is rather too relaxed for its own good, suggesting a more modest box office life than its cast might have indicated. Mostly shot in Germany, the good-looking drama will have its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.
Postponed from its original year-end release date due to reported delays in completing special effects, the film could inadvertently benefit publicity-wise due to the recent discovery in Germany of hitherto unknown collections of art said to have been confiscated before and during the war. This is unlikely to be the last of such findings, which merely underlines the magnitude of the difficulty faced by the real-life figures on which the film is based.
To be sure, it’s a fascinating story, one touched upon in a central way only once before in a major Hollywood movie, John Frankenheimer‘s sensationally good The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, in 1964. Whereas that was a breathless thriller, The Monuments Men is more of a procedural in which a band of middle-aged scholars, led by art historian Frank Stokes (played by Clooney as a fictionalized version of Harvard art conservationist George Stout, a handsome mustachioed man in real life himself), receive the blessing of FDR himself to enter the war zones of Europe to do what they can to save the Western art Hitler has been amassing to fill his planned Fuhrer Museum in Germany.
In short order, Stokes puts together a group of guys who are not so much misfits as sedentary smarties too old to be drafted or put through basic training, which, in fact, they have to endure since they’re likely to come under fire. There’s straitlaced art expert James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), French art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), art historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and British art wingman Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville); they’re joined by a virtual kid, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a German Jew who will translate and drive.
Clooney and co-writer (and co-producer) Grant Heslov throw in mild humor here and there as these American Wild Geese try to get in shape and Granger, who claims to speaks French, is continually asked by the French to speak English instead because his French is so bad (they later understand why when he says he learned in Montreal). Arriving on the secured beach at Normandy in July 1944, the men learn that their mission is disdained by local brass, who feel that risking any life for the sake of art is absurd.
In Paris, they learn that the national collection is safe but that enormous collections of mostly Jewish-owned art were confiscated by decree. It turns out that the Russians, approaching from the East, are also trying to track down the art but intend to keep it as recompense for war costs. But where is it? Stokes knows some of the cities where it’s been stashed but not the exact locations. Which is where Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) comes in.
A prim, bespectacled Parisian, Claire worked at the Jeu de Paume under the Nazis, meticulously documenting the movements of all art objects (Goering was a frequent visitor, replenishing his own collection as well as that of the Fuhrer). Unwilling to cooperate with the Yanks at first, convinced that they’ll just take it all home, she finally has a change of heart and, in the end, yearns only for one night with Damon’s Granger in exchange for her records.
It turns out the loot is mostly hidden in mines, so it comes down to a race between the Americans and both the Nazis, who would rather burn Picassos rather than have them fall into Allied hands, and the Russians, who consider it blood money. But the contest is less suspenseful than it is self-sacrificing, uplifting and altruistic. No occasion is lost for one of the characters — most often Stokes — to deliver a little speech about the civilizing nature of art, its incalculable value to the world, its importance as a means of defining our culture. To the argument that, “No piece of art is worth a son’s life,” The Monuments Men ultimately proposes the contrary because great art should live on as an eternal reminder of what a civilization stands for.
Ideally, such a message would be implicit rather than so explicitly and repeatedly stated, but it’s as if Clooney and Heslov either underestimate their audience or actually suspect that, perhaps not knowing who Rembrandt, Renoir, Cezanne or even Michelangelo were, modern viewers need to be lectured on the importance of high European culture. The film is bracketed by scenes in which Stokes has to convince two different U.S. presidents of the very same.
As the driving impulse behind the project thus seems to have been to honor the men without whom the legacy of Western art might have been gravely compromised, it may seem rude to suggest that the film would have been better had it backpedaled this sentiment in favor of a rougher, mixed-mood drama with a more arbitrary and surprising attitude toward life and death — or a more insouciant comic drama about some guys just getting the job done. Too much of the time, The Monuments Men falls into a compromised middle zone, not urgent and only mildly amusing.
Blanchett gives the most edge to her role but even her character is held back a bit in her dealings with Damon’s upstanding fellow. Funnymen Murray and Goodman work within a subdued range for them, while Damon, Balaban, Dujardin and the others are fine but do little surprising. Clooney gives most of the uplifting speeches but also has the film’s best monologue, wherein he bluntly tells a captured Nazi bigwig how he’ll read his brief obituary while having lunch at a Jewish deli when he gets home to New York.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, production designer Jim Bissell and costume designer Louise Frogley make strong contributions to the film’s fine look, and some good CGI work provides convincing vistas of wartime ruin. Alexandre Desplat‘s score is uncharacteristically sentimental.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (out of competition)
Production: Columbia Pictures, Fox 2000, Smokehouse Productions
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett, Dimitri Leonidas
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriters: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney
Executive producer: Barbara A. Hall
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production designer: Jim Bissell
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Rated PG-13, 118 minutes
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