Rating: PG-13
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett, Dimitri Leonidas
Writers: George Clooney & Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Director: George Clooney
Distributor: Columbia Pictures/Fox 2000 Pictures
Release Date: February 7, 2014

THE MONUMENTS MEN | © 2014 Columbia Pictures

THE MONUMENTS MEN | © 2014 Columbia Pictures

THE MONUMENTS MEN, directed by George Clooney and scripted by Clooney and Grant Heslov from a book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, concerns a true, little-known chapter of World War II – and world art – history. Concerned by Hitler’s propensity for not just killing people but stealing their artwork collections, a small group of curators, art historians and the like were commissioned by the U.S. military to go into Europe, find and retrieve the artwork, all while the war was still raging.

The production notes state that some specific characters – like Clooney’s Frank Stokes – are based on real people (in the case of Stokes, it’s art historian George Stout), but all are fictionalized. In the film, it’s Stokes who persuades President Roosevelt that to save art is to save civilization. When Roosevelt gives his blessing, Stokes rounds up a team of international experts, including museum director James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), French art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), English recovering alcoholic Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), prickly art historian/theatre director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and, the one person already on active duty in the Army, German Jew Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), whose family emigrated to New Jersey before the war.

Since what’s happening is a huge treasure hunt, THE MONUMENTS MEN could have been anything. Clooney and Heslov don’t have a laugh riot sensibility, so the movie isn’t a straight-out comedy about middle-aged and largely sedentary men suddenly on the front lines, but it’s not a linear thriller, either, nor is it a deep character study. The filmmakers are very interested in the issue of whether it is worth risking and even losing life in the service of saving art. Their answer is sincerely in the affirmative, and intellectually, we understand the argument they make, mostly through Stokes. The problem is that for a lot of people, it won’t resonate on a visceral level. The notion that art is central to Western civilization makes sense, but so does one outraged officer’s speech that he’s not prepared to write to a soldier’s mother saying her boy died to save a mural on a bell tower. Clooney and his director of photography Phedon Papamichael shoot the paintings and sculptures lovingly, but they don’t make us share the passion that the main characters feel for these masterpieces. What the film does, and does well, is persuade us that its people feel it’s worth giving their lives to protect the artwork.

The structure of THE MONUMENTS MEN is perhaps more episodic than intended. We understand how our heroes draw their conclusions, but not always how one discovery leads to another; sometimes there’s less payoff for a story thread than the buildup would suggest. Rather than building tension along a linear plot, this film is more interested in character moments.

To this end, the often scared Garfield and the much calmer Clermont are often paired together, and Goodman and Dujardin (who previously worked together in THE ARTIST) make a good unlikely buddy act. Campbell and Savitz are also teamed, much to Savitz’s annoyance. Murray and Balaban zing off other another so expertly and effortlessly that the only problem here is there is perhaps more an undertone of joy and affection than we’re supposed to see. Bonneville is affecting as the character who has the most to prove, while Clooney and Damon both offer conviction as men who inherently inspire trust.

It’s certainly enjoyable seeing this great group of actors – along with Cate Blanchett, who plays an extremely knowledgeable French secretary – get to work with each other, given time to build moments and reactions, albeit the film’s insistent score sometimes overwhelms the action. It just feels a little strange juxtaposed with the Holocaust and, because of the way the story is told, the characters feel more sense of urgency about their mission than we do. They want to get the Rembrandts and Michelangelos back to their rightful owners and exhibits; many viewers will just want the men to get home safely.

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ArticleMovie Review: THE MONUMENTS MEN

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