The Monuments Men is precisely the sort of film the industry is coming to expect from George Clooney when he’s not in “blockbuster superstar” mode, and when he opts to tackle writing and directing duties. Intelligent, character-driven, and entertaining from start to finish thanks to a fascinating story pulled from obscure World War II history and a cast delivering understated yet appealing and memorable performances, it’s a treat to watch, even if you don’t care for history or war films.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a Harvard art historian who at the height of World War II brings to the attention of President Roosevelt just how endangered some of the greatest pieces of art in the Western world have become due to the destruction created by the Allies’ advance into Europe. It’s Stokes’s proposal to send a team of young art scholars into the war zone in order to direct the Allies away from destroying art and structures with artistic or cultural significance, but the President points out the sad truth that all the young art scholars are already over there, actually fighting the war. So Stokes’ proposed task, while certainly important, would have to fall to someone else … namely, Stokes himself.
The art scholar-turned-officer then goes about recruiting his team: James Granger (Matt Damon), a fellow art scholar; Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), a renowned architect; Walter Garfield (John Goodman), a sculptor; Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a French art dealer; Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), a theater impresario, Sam Epstein (Dmitri Leonidas), the group’s driver and translator, and Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), a British art collector and old friend of Stokes who’s in need of a purpose and a second chance. These eight men, none of them except Sam young and most of them ill-suited to be soldiers at the front, do not hesitate to answer Stokes’s call to arms because they realize all too well what’s at stake. After all, what good is it to win the war and save the world from the Nazis if so many of the Western World’s greatest accomplishments, the symbols of why this civilization is worth saving, is all destroyed in the process?
The intrepid crew first survive (barely) basic training in England before following the path of the D-Day invasion to the beaches of Normandy, whereupon they split into smaller teams to cover more ground and trail the retreating German army. Hitler’s forces, they quickly discover, are taking the older, more historic pieces of art with them as they withdraw to Germany, while simply destroying the more modern art that Hitler had declared as “degenerate”, such as works by Picasso, Klimt, and the German Expressionists of the early 20th Century. Where the Germans are taking and hiding the art is the great mystery, and to solve it the group will need the help of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a Parisian art curator forced to work with the Nazis during the occupation of Paris as they went about their looting and stashing of the West’s most coveted art pieces. She’s a living witness to the whole despicable process, and thus the Monuments Men need to know what she knows. But what reasons does she have to trust that these strangers are any better than the previous occupying army, and that they won’t simply keep the art for their own museums and collections? Very, very few, at first.
The screen story that Clooney and his frequent writing/producing partner Grant Heslov construct, based in part on the nonfiction book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel, treats its subject reverently, and gives each of the characters individual moments to shine and earn our attachment. It actually has a great deal in common with Clooney’s Oceans 11 heist films — it even features a scene early in the film with Clooney and Matt Damon’s characters sitting at a bar talking about the task at hand and how guys they’ll need, which may have audiences just expecting Brad Pitt to walk in, put his arms around their shoulders, and say, “So boys, what are we stealing this time?”
But once the proceedings really get rolling, the film looks and feels much more like the The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone than it does Ocean’s 13. The film is driven far more by dialogue than it is by set pieces, as we’re given a chance to learn just why its so important to each of these people that they’re a part of this effort, why risking their lives for the sake of saving artworks is unquestionably worth it. It also gives us a chance to enjoy the great chemistry that’s apparent between all these veteran performers; in particular, the scenes shared by Murray and Balaban are among the funniest in the film. Blanchett and Damon’s shared scenes also stand out as among the film’s most intriguing, as Granger works hard to earn Simone’s trust and faith that he will do as he promises and return the art he’s able to recover. Damon’s effortless earnestness, when met head-on by Blanchett’s initial distrust and coldness — she’s a vessel of barely contained outrage and grief over what’s been done to her life’s work by foreign men in uniforms that claim to “love” art — make for great verbal exchanges and sparring. Add to that a running joke about Granger’s less-than-perfect French and exactly the kind of disdain you might expect from a Parisian towards an American butchering her language and you have the blueprint for some truly fun dramatic scenes.
It should be said, though, that this story, one so little known from arguably the greatest armed conflict our civilization as we know it has endured, one that we as a nation are less than a hundred years removed from, is one that’s so compelling that Clooney could’ve shot the thing with no name actors and it still would have been compelling cinema. So it’s almost a bonus that he’s able to fill the screen with such prodigious talent, some of whom it’s readily apparent had their roles written specifically for them or around the talents they brought to the table. They just make a great story even better, and help create for audiences a classicly enjoyable film experience that should be experienced and celebrated, especially in our age of 3D IMAX bombast and short-attention-span-serving spectacle.
Score: 4 out of 5
The Monuments Men
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dmitri Leonidas, and Cate Blanchett. Directed by George Clooney.
Running Time: 118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.