‘The Monuments Men’ deserves at least a small monument of its own

The cast of 'Monuments Men' (from right to left): John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray
The cast of ‘Monuments Men’ (from right to left): John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray

In 1943, at the height of World War II, it became clear that the Germans were engaged in the systematic looting of every major art work in Europe.  It was up to the soldiers and civilians who worked in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program to recover and repatriate this stolen art back to its rightful owners.  That is the true story on which the film The Monuments Men, written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov and directed by Clooney is based.  If you know anything about the actual events, you know that poetic license is in play.  The choices to exercise such license are good ones in this case, as was the decision that the film wouldn’t take itself so seriously.  This allowed the filmmakers to poke fun at situations where humor works, and still display the high drama that is war right up on the enemy lines.

Clooney stars as “Frank Stokes”, a fictional character based on real-life Monuments Man George Stout.  He organizes a small unit that includes “James Granger” (Matt Damon), “Richard Campbell” (Bill Murray), “Walter Garfield” (John Goodman), French soldier “Jean Claude Clermont” (Jean Dujardin), “Donald Jeffries” (Hugh Bonneville) and “Preston Savitz” (Bob Balaban).  They are all experts in fields that make them ideally suited for their mission.  Locate, identify and recover the artworks that the Nazis have stolen from all over Europe.

George Clooney stars and directs 'Monuments Men,' seen here with co-star Matt Damon
George Clooney stars in and directs Monuments Men, seen here with co-star Matt Damon

They have several issues to deal with.  They aren’t trained as soldiers, but in order to get to the artworks before German soldiers can destroy them (Hitler gave an order that this would be done if it appeared the Allies would recover the art, or if he died).  They are racing against time as there are Soviet soldiers also trying to find the artworks and other valuables, which they intend to seize as reparations for the millions of Soviets murdered by Hitler’s minions.

The achievements of the real life Monuments Men were remarkable.  Heroic.  Epic.  But sadly, while this is not a bad film, it doesn’t do justice to their story.  It plods in places.  Uneven, it manages moments of sheer brilliance, followed by a longer stretches of mediocrity.  Clooney, who has shown a real talent for directing period pieces (Good Night and Good Luck is amazing) is hampered by a story that some will not find truly interesting.  One area where he succeeds is making the best possible use of his cast.  Goodman and Murray are uncharacteristically restrained and yet still evoke laughs where they are supposed to, and generating drama when appropriate.  Bob Balaban is a joy to watch in anything he performs in.  Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett as a Frenchwoman who is a key source of information for the Monuments Men have good chemistry in their scenes together.

This is a good fictionalized history of some true heroes.  To learn more about them, visit http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/

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