Dir. by George Clooney - 1 hr. 58 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I'm not usually a big fan of war movies. That's not to say that's exactly what "The Monuments Men" was, although World War II is the setting, and the Nazis are (eternally) the bad guys. So you'd be forgiven if you took a glance at this, thought it was going to be a comedy about old guys trying to fight in WW2, and blew it off. I generally don't care much about watching people shoot each other over a few inches of territory at a time; if I wanted to see that, I'd just watch an NFL game and comfort myself knowing that there is at least a minimally smaller amount of personal carnage inflicted there. What makes "The Monuments Men" fascinating (or at least one of the things) is that it's a movie about a small group of men with a specific task in a very large, very deadly war that was for enormous stakes. This film examines an unexplored nook, and makes a convincing case for why culture and history matter, and even though not everyone shared the same respect for what these men were doing, preserving those things was an act of patriotism on par with every other soldier's.
Frank Stokes (George Clooney) makes a proposal to the President - allow Stokes to lead a small team of men to protect whatever art is left standing after towns have been razed with bombs, and identify what's been looted by the Nazis. You see, Adolf Hitler dreams of building a huge art museum in Linz, Austria, filled to the brim with masterpieces of art, all stolen from private collections across Europe, and especially from Jewish art collectors. To that end, whenever the German forces would overtake a town, they would also go through whatever museums and art collections were in the town, and send back cherry-picked pieces home to Germany. Stokes assembles a small team of artists and historians, and they head into the thick of the action, and immediately receive no support from the other soldiers, who don't really care what they blow up, so long as it means beating the Nazis.
Probably the first thing to note is that I would have gone to see this movie on the basis of the cast alone. The main cast includes Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray, which is a nice collection of talent. All of the characters in the film are "loosely based" on the real people involved (except, I suppose, Adolf Hitler and President Eisenhower), so there's not much point in naming their characters. The characters all mostly pair off; Clooney mostly interacts with a young translator, Sam (Dimitri Leonidas) and a disgraced British officer, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Matt Damon is sent to Paris to try to convince curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to help with whatever information she has gleaned from being forced to work with the Nazis, Goodman and French soldier Jean Claude (Jean Dujardin) roam the countryside in France trying to gain whatever information they can, and Murray and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) do the same while also playing a hangdog deadpan comedy duo convincingly (and entertainingly). It's hard to say who exactly stands out, as everyone in the cast has their role and nails it, but I think Cate Blanchett has to get extra credit as carrying the only real female role, and it's a hefty one, not a fluffy one that's solely based around her falling in love with some soldier. Blanchett has a lot of range to cover emotionally, and she's absolutely spellbinding here.
In terms of what makes the story here work, one aspect that has to be acknowledged is that how you might respond to this movie will largely depend on whether or not you have any respect for the role of art in a culture's history. Clooney's character does make an explicit argument for that, but if you're someone who just doesn't care, his assertion that taking away a culture's history and achievements is one thing that a people can't recover from might not hit home. There's no dancing around it, you either believe that creative works are valuable or you don't, and if you don't, there are plenty of other films out there for you (although I'm not sure why you'd want to watch any movie if you didn't have some respect for creative endeavors). For me, there were several moments involving the artwork itself that stuck in my throat. Oddly enough, the worst for me was a still picture during the end credits that had the actual Monuments Men recovering a portfolio of prints, with the word "Durer" written on it. I've been to Europe and some of it's museums, and I've seen Albrecht Durer's work in person, and the idea that if some Nazi dickhead had his way I (and everyone) would have had to bow down to an anti-Semitic regime in order to experience these pieces of human achievement really angered me.
There are other points in the film where the stakes are made explicit, in broader terms than one little thing that hit home with me. This is some kind of war film, and that means everyone doesn't make it out alive. Just because our band of protagonists deal in art and culture doesn't mean that bullets and bombs don't have the same consequences that they do for your everyday soldiers, who are also part of the story. The point is that there are people who think that this stuff is also worth fighting for, that there has to be something left for whoever survives the awfulness of war. The fact that the results on that front were mixed (that's not a spoiler, you have to expect some breakage if you're moving anything anywhere) says a lot about not just the talents of the people involved, but also the legitimacy of the threat that Germany and Hitler's ambitions posed to the rest of the world in this time period. There are plenty of films about the big battles in World War II, this is a film about one aspect that flew under the radar. I'm not suggesting that it's a more important one than the others, but it's a unique one with a great cast, and showed just enough of the war to keep the audience aware of the stakes, and enough of everything else to not be just another war film.
4 / 5 - Theatre