The Monuments Men – film review (A-)

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Let’s get a few things out of the way about The Monuments Men:

  1. Yes, it’s a true story, much more so than the usual “Based on/Inspired by a true story/true events.”  According to the Smithsonian Institute’s website, the film is estimated at about 80% accurate, but of course producers had to adjust things for the sake of a 2-hour film.
  2. Although the film features a team of eight men, the actual numbers slowly grew to over 300.
  3. The scene in which Bill Murray’s character needs a dentist and then significant things result actually happened.
  4. The final scene, which takes place in what seems like one day, actually took about three weeks.
  5. I will use the actors’ names instead of characters in this review because there are too many characters and their names are not the same as the real people on which the story is based.
  6. My goal is to review the film and not recount the actual events.  For that, you can check out these links:

http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/monuments-men.php

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-monuments-men-180949569/

Okay, reality aside.

I grew up on World War II films including The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare, The Battle of the Bulge, The Longest Day, The Guns of Navarrone, The Dirty Dozen, etc.  A good film usually left off the war film list is Kelly’s Heroes, with Clint Eastwood, Telly Savales, Donald Sutherland, and Don Rickles.  It was a fun, effective, but unusual balance of war and comedy, and so is The Monuments Men.

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During both World War II and the horrible events preceding, Adolf Hitler not only collected and imprisoned people but also their art in an attempt to imprison the culture and history of those people.  He knew he could never actually take over the world, but housing the motherlode of world art history would have been close.

Art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney) gains an audience with President Roosevelt hoping to convince him to dispatch a team of soldiers on an artistic scavenger hunt to retake and protect millions of paintings, sculptures, and other pieces from the Nazi regime.  Good news – Roosevelt agrees to the mission.  Bad news – the “team” includes Stokes and six other historians and museum curators, not soldiers, assigned to make their way through Europe, including occupied territories.  Other members are James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban).  Good luck with that.

Stokes and company land at Normandy long after D-Day and are quickly told to get lost when they attempt to find provisions, especially transportation, for their mission.  Not even the President’s directive sways an officer with so much dirt and blood beneath his fingernails.  Doesn’t take long for Stokes, with his Clark Gable smile and ‘stache, to commandeer not just a car but German born-and-raised driver Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas).  A mission, armed with maps, information from German prisoners, and motivation, is underway.  The map, taken from the enemy, shows circles around a few key cities in which it is expected the art treasures will be found.  They break into small groups for individual missions but report back with progress.

Granger, as the others are foraging through Germany and France, meets up with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a former secretary to General Stahl, an SS officer chiefly responsible for a great portion of the missing art.  She has details of what has been taken and where it is hidden.  What she does not have is trust in anyone, not since her brother was killed as part of the French Resistance.  If Granger can win Simone’s trust, he will gain her personal catalogue of what Stahl took, from whom he took it, and where he hid it.

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This is not a battle-hungry war film in the direction of those previously mentioned.  It’s more of a chess match that slowly develops, especially when Stokes learns that his mission’s urgency has tripled.  The mission progresses from finding stolen art to finding it before the Nazi’s destroy it and then finding the art before the Russians get to it first.  That’s a leap from DefCon 3 to DefCon 5.

I will not break this film down as specifically as I usually do.  Instead, I want to look at it as an ensemble because the details of each mission are not very exciting.  Or, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It doesn’t matter so much that Murray’s character makes derogatory comments about Balaban’s rank, height, or fragility.  Nor does it matter how Murray is affected, and how Balaban helps, when the Men spend Christmas somewhere in snowy Europe.  It doesn’t matter how funny yet serious Goodman and Dujardin react and overreact when pinned down by a sniper.  It doesn’t matter that Damon speaks French poorly while fighting the temptation of Blanchett, a lonely, vulnerable woman with a bottle of wine.

What matters are the lengths to which men will go for their professional and personal passions.  That they are willing to die to save a painting is an incredible statement to the elder end of the “greatest generation.”  To watch them regard a sculpture of “Madonna and Child,” also known as “Madonna of Bruges,” as if it were the living Madonna and Child is nothing less than a perfect illustration of both why Hitler would want it and the Men would want to protect it.

Actual rescue of Madonna and Child

Actual rescue of Madonna and Child

Director Clooney keeps Actor Clooney as more of a straight man, allowing the rest of the cast their opportunities to step forward.  Nobody steals the show, nobody goes overboard, and everybody is basically a good soldier, contributing to the greater good instead of their own good on both sides of the camera.  As far as I’m concerned, Balaban is just not in enough films.  Murray and Goodman are always delightful, doesn’t matter what they do.  It seems silly to say that, but that’s how it is.  We probably haven’t seen Dujardin since The Entertainer.  He doesn’t do a great deal here, but he does it well.

The only one with any energy in the film is Blanchett, but there’s a very good reason for that.  These men are not soldiers.  They’re intellectuals.  They don’t run across battlefields with guns blazing.  They assess a situation, examine percentages, compare risk versus reward, prioritize, plan, and go forward.  The landmine scene, which did not actually happen, is an excellent example.  Blanchett’s moments, such as when she gets an extra glass for the general’s champagne, is an excellent example of her character.  Watch how she reacts when fired upon by the general, compare that to how Goodman and Dujardin react when faced by sniper fire, and that perfectly sums up my point about the energy.  It’s not a complaint.  It is a tribute to Clooney’s directorial skills.  And, she was a real character who did nearly exactly as portrayed by Blanchett.

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The Monuments Men won’t win any awards except perhaps a nomination for costume or set design.  It’s not Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List.  It’s a very good film.  It tells a very good story.  Just don’t expect to stand up and cheer.  However, when you see the very last word of dialogue, expect to shed a tear or two.

Teacher gives it an A-.

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