THE MONUMENTS MEN

THE MONUMENTS MEN

By Gary Murray

Starring George Clooney, Bill Murray, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett

Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Directed by George Clooney

Running time 118 min

MPAA Rating PG-13

Selig Film Rating Matinee

 

George Clooney is one of the most recognized actors on the planet.  This former TV star has gone on to become an icon in Hollywood and a world-wide celebrity.  Not only did he play Batman, but he’s been in such diverse films as The Ocean’s Franchise, The Perfect Storm and O’Brother, Where Art Thou?  As a director, he has crafted such films as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck and Leatherheads.  His latest directing/starring vehicle is The Monuments Men.

The story is a little told tale of WWII.  While Hitler was ravaging the European countryside and taking the spoils of war, the troops were also taking all the important works of art from private hands.  His men were also taking art from museums. There were books upon books of wanted works from all the masters.

The eventual goal was to have a museum where the entire world’s art would be stored.  It would be Hitler’s lasting legacy to world culture.

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is a man tasked to make sure that doesn’t happen.  He convinces the powers in D.C. that the art must be saved and preserved.  The great works are for all mankind and not just for the amusement of a fanatic.  He is given the task to ‘assemble the troops’ and save the paintings and sculptures.

Frank puts together a squad of art historians and scholars who know what they are looking for and believe in the cause.  After they all go through basic training, the men hit the beaches of Normandy right after the D-Day invasions.  There is no Saving Private Ryan battle but pure skies and clean sands.

Soon, they find that the enlisted commanders do not want to listen to the monuments men.  The commanders are not going to risk a man for a painting or statue.  Their job is to finish the war, not save a sculpture.    

The men eventually realize that they must split up in order to cover more ground.  James Granger (Matt Damon) heads to Paris where he meets Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett).  She worked for the Nazis but did not support their cause.  Her only concern is art and she believes that the Americans are going to just take all of the French art back to the States.  She does not trust James. 

In what is easily the most moving scene in the work, James and Claire go to a warehouse where there are cases upon cases of fine china and furnishings.  James realizes that all of these represent Jewish families that were taken by the Nazis.  The people who accumulated these trappings of wealth will never be back to reclaim them. 

James takes a painting and returns it to the wall it originally belonged, in what is now an abandoned Jewish ghetto.  When Claire tells him that the family it belongs to will never be back, he answers with “I didn’t know what else to do.”  That is the basic sentiment of the film and its greatest strength.  By showing a simple portrait, it becomes the reflection of the Holocaust. 

There is also the search for a Madonna sculpture in Belgium.  Someone loses their life in trying to protect the work by Leonardo.  It shows the steadfast dedication some men have to protect something that is for the ages. 

Another group is off to find a series of panels, considered to be one of the most important works of religious representation.  The chase leads through the countryside and against enemy troops. 

All of these threads lead to a directive from Hitler himself.  In the event of Nazi Germany falling, all of these works must be destroyed.  The last of the film becomes a race against time to stop the Nazi element from carrying out this order.   Also, the Russians want the spoils of war.  

This is a very wide palate film, a work that seems constricted by the two hour framework.  It would have worked better as a History Channel series, where the full lives of these men could be explored.  As presented, it feels more like a Cliff Notes version of the event.  The audience craved more of each story and each story could have made a much more compelling story. 

The search for stolen treasure, the chase to reclaim the Madonna r the love/hate relationship between a GI trying to do the right thing and a French woman who does not trust his intentions all would have made single films of insightful impact.  To be blunt, there is just too much going on in The Monuments Men to make the final film anything more than a trifle.

George Clooney has assembled one of the most impressive casts of the year but he gives them few moments to shine.  With such a large cast, it becomes almost impossible to standout.  One moment of true inspiration is when Bill Murray’s character gets a 78 rpm home recording.  In a touching single beat of the film, Bill plays it perfect by having a stoic reaction.  The scene shows why they are doing it, for their families. 

The Monuments Men was set to be an Oscar contender but was shelved.  It feels like a contender but from another era.  There is almost an old-fashioned story-telling element to the flick but not in the classic sense.  It is not timeless as much as it feels stale.

This is not a war film and those expecting something with action will be sorely disappointed.  But as a compliment to WWII films, The Monuments Men shows the dedication of preservationists and how important their story is to world art history.  The problem is that a great story doesn’t always translate into a great motion picture.   

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