Based on a True Story Comedy

Carefully Curated Film Review: The Monuments Men

February 7, 2014Ben MK

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Clooney's renaissance men take on the Nazis

By Ben Mk

By this point in his career, it should be second nature for George Clooney to assemble a team and lead them in scoring a big payoff. As Danny Ocean in Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Trilogy, that was, after all, his character's key responsibility; and as a director with four prior films under his belt, he's been lauded for his skill at doing essentially that. So, it should come as no surprise that for The Monuments Men — which recounts the true story of some of World War II's most unlikely, unsung heroes — Clooney is once again revisiting that familiar role, both in front of and behind the camera.

Based on the true events documented in Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter's bestseller, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the film focuses on the waning months of World War II and Hitler's insatiable quest to pillage Europe of its most treasured works of art, to fill the halls of his planned "Führer Museum". After presenting his concerns to the top military brass, professor Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with forming a unique team of scholars and artists — their mission: to travel to the front lines and rescue history's greatest cultural touchstones from the clutches of Hitler's army. Stokes' go-to men for the job are a rag-tag bunch — museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), theater director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and art expert Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) — none of whom have ever spent any time on the battlefield. After miraculously passing muster at basic training, they set foot on the shores of Normandy, with an unfathomable task ahead of them: find where the Nazis have hidden the stolen masterpieces and return them to their rightful owners. But, as Stokes tells his Monuments Men, "This mission was never designed to succeed."

Compounding their problems is the Nero Decree — issued by Hitler himself, ordering the destruction of, among other things, all of Germany's plundered artworks, should the country fall or he be killed. But time isn't the only thing working against them. The men of the Russian "Trophy Brigade" have also been dispatched on a similar mission — only they seek to keep their spoils for Mother Russia. Finding little sympathy for their cause among the Allied troops, the success of the Monuments Men's mission — and, ultimately, their very survival — rests solely on their wits and with the few empathetic souls they encounter along the way. Among them are Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French museum curator whose reluctant dealings with the Reich places her in a unique position to help, and Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a German-born Allied solider whose translation skills prove invaluable to their mission.

On a superficial level, The Monuments Men can be considered a spiritual successor (or, more apropos, given the historical setting, a spiritual predecessor) to Ocean's Eleven, outfitted with the beating heart of Inglorious Basterds (minus the bloodlust and extreme violence). However, the tone of the film hews more closely to that of 1960's cinema, making The Monuments Men a wholehearted throwback to the ensemble war-themed pics of Hollywood's yesteryear. Clooney's commitment to that sensibility runs deep, from the opening titles right through to the closing credits, especially considering the film's classic Hollywood score — with composer Alexandre Desplat's rousing theme resonating strongly throughout the story, immediately conjuring up memories of The Great Escape's memorable main titles.

But a film like Saving Private Ryan it is not, so viewer expectations should be tempered accordingly. The Monuments Men is many things — a drama, a comedy, an adventure and a period piece — but it isn't an action film. Although various members of the squad do, quite literally, stumble into the crosshairs of a few armed standoffs, those situations resolve themselves anticlimactically, more often than not. By and large, the Monuments Men are bystanders to the war, operating on its periphery to complete a square peg of a mission that doesn't fit into the round hole that is the Allies' strategic plan for defeating the Axis. Despite it being light on action, Clooney and his stalwart writing partner, Grant Heslov, have still managed to craft an entertaining character journey, built mostly on the strength of the rapport between their band of brothers. There's a great sense of camaraderie among the actors up on screen; and audiences can count on that bond to uphold the emotion of the film, and on the banter between the actors to keep it chugging along.

The Bottom Line

All things considered, The Monuments Men is probably the most fun that can be had at the movies, for a World War II film — a refreshingly retro piece of cinema that eschews the typically sullen tones that color contemporary war films in favor of something a little more buoyant. Moviegoers in search of blood on the battlefield may be left wanting by the shortfall in action; but, otherwise, Clooney and company have done justice to the source material and created a rousing adventure that strikes the right balance between drama and comedy, pleasing on both fronts. [★★★½]

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