Adventure Based on a True Story

The Art of a DVD Review: The Monuments Men

May 22, 2014Ben MK

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National treasure hunters

By Ben Mk

It seems like we've been inundated with World War II films lately, from action-packed spectacles like Stalingrad to introspective dramas like The Book Thief. And within that niche spectrum of moviemaking, The Monuments Men falls comfortably in the middle. Part history lesson and part comedy/drama, the film doesn't sing the praises of the usual wartime heroics — rather, it tells the surprising (and true) story of a group of academics-turned-soldiers tasked with recovering some of history's most treasured works of art from the clutches of the Third Reich.

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 (George Clooney) is tasked with forming a unique team — comprised of scholars and artists — to find where the Nazis have hidden the stolen masterpieces and return them to their rightful owners. His handpicked squad includes 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 a daunting mission and unimaginable obstacles ahead of them.

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.

Clooney pulls quadruple duty as actor, co-writer, producer and director, and the tone he sets for the film hews closely to that of 1960's cinema, making The Monuments Men a wholehearted throwback to the ensemble war-themed pics of Hollywood's yesteryear. In fact, The Monuments Men is many things — a drama, a comedy, an adventure and a period piece — but the one thing it isn't is an action film. For the most part, Stokes and his 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. But 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 rolling along.

Even though The Monuments Men isn't your prototypical tale of war, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's color palette for the film embodies that authentic wartime look to a tee — with Sony's DVD presentation diligently following suit. From the streets of 1940's Paris and New York City to wartorn Milan and the shores of Normandy, the standard definition transfer renders the predominantly earth-toned visuals with a respectable degree of clarity, highlighting the nuances of the film's period production values. While detail is most vivid in scenes set in broad daylight, the characters also spend a fair amount of screen time cloaked in partial darkness. Thankfully, shadow detail and contrast levels are also solid, so the image is never flat or murky. Sound-wise, the most memorable aspect of the film is arguably composer Alexander Desplat's classic Hollywood score, especially its rousing theme, which conjures up memories of The Great Escape's main titles. The rest of the film's soundstage consists primarily of dialog and unintrusive environmental effects, punctuated by the occasional explosion or burst of gunfire, all of which is replicated with ease by the disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.

Aside from an UltraViolet digital copy of the film, Sony's DVD release is rather light on the extras front. There are only two brief featurettes included on the disc, clocking in at 13 minutes in total: George Clooney's Mission and Marshalling the Troops. Both are EPK-style pieces featuring sound bites from Clooney, Heslov and the cast, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage and film clips. The first focuses on Clooney's directing style and his vision for the film, while the second centers on the contributions made by the various members of the talented cast. Though neither of these featurettes shed much insight on the film's production, there is some lighthearted humor peppered throughout, making them fairly entertaining to watch.

All things considered, The Monuments Men's retro aesthetic is a breath of cinematic fresh air. Some moviegoers may be left wanting by the shortfall in action; but, otherwise, Clooney and company have created a charming adventure that strikes the right balance between drama and comedy, satisfying on both fronts. Likewise, the A/V presentation on Sony's DVD release is also a crowd-pleaser; and even though it's lacking in worthwhile special features, that doesn't make The Monuments Men on DVD any less worthy of saving for future generations.

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  ★★★½
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  ★★★★
Special Features  —  ★★

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this DVD review were adapted from my original review of the theatrical release, published on February 7th, 2014.

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