I liked The Monuments Men. I’m gonna come right out and say it. No, it’ not perfect, it’s probably not going to win any awards, but I liked it. Of course, now the obvious question is why did I like it? It could have something to do with the brilliant cast, it could have something to do with the subject matter and it could be because I was tired of heavy handed dramas and I just saw it at the right time. I think it’s a combination of all of that.
To start with, the film is based on a true history book called The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel. See, it seems that Hitler, during World War II, decided he wanted ALL the art in the world in his private museum and since he was taking over countries anyway, he might as well grab the art on the way. A guy named George Stout saw what was going on and pleaded with Roosevelt to assign some men to save the art. FDR gave the okay and the task of assembling the team and going after the pieces began.
The film, which stars, and was co-written and directed by, George Clooney, tells this story simply. Now, not having read the book, I’m not sure how much leeway he’s taken, but he has developed a bit of a through line, focusing on the Ghent Altarpiece, which was stolen multiple times and was a highly sought prize for the Nazis, and the Madonna of Bruge. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov create a group of composite characters to take the place of the 60 or so actual Monuments Men (for example, Clooney’s Frank Stokes is an obvious stand in for Stout) and this may be where the film runs into trouble. Because these are composite characters, created, I’m assuming, so several different stories could be told and a narrative arc could be developed, we get slightly different personalities and tones. It feels, at times, like Clooney isn’t sure what genre of film he’s making as it veers from fairly serious drama to romance to almost slapstick comedy so we, as an audience, are never quite sure of our dramatic footing.
But you know, I’m okay with that. Clooney has always struck me as a director with a stylistic sense of years, if not decades, gone by and The Monuments Men feels like a film from another era. This is the kind of star-studded vehicle that would have been made in the fifties, with a huge, big name cast, to glorify the work our boys did in fighting off the Nazis! And to that end, I think it does work.
Matt Damon, who at this point is probably closer to Clooney than any woman has ever been, is doing serviceable Damon as James Granger, the guy who gets sent to Paris to enlist the aid of secretary and resistance member Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett, but based on the real life Lynn H. Nicholas). It is her work in tracking the art stolen from French Jews which ultimately helps lead the team to its greatest discovery (the two pieces mentioned above). There’s also some very fine work by Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin and John Goodman, who hasn’t actually had to prove his acting chops in a while. Rounding out the big names on the poster is relative newcomer Dimitri Leonidas who holds his own as a German born Jewish soldier from New Jersey.
I also like the story itself. I like the idea that art is worth dying for. As a literature professor, this makes sense to me. We need art to remind us why we fight wars in the first place. Art lets us know what it means to be human. Without it, we’re merely existing.
Now, on the downside, there are some scenes and sequences which really have no place in the movie. Specifically, Damon stepping on a landmine (it’s in the trailer so no spoilers here) is an almost pointless waste of time. The only story purpose it serves is to show us that the team is all for one and one for all but since there were only two characters who were ever at any type of odds with each other (and even that was played out good naturedly) there’s no need to show their solidarity.
As I said, it’s not going to win any awards, but as a Saturday afternoon diversion to give a glimpse into a little known piece of historical treasure hunting, it has value and merit.