I've been looking forward to THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) since the project was first announced so I was happy to have the chance to see it today. I'm glad to say I enjoyed it very much.
This WWII film was directed by star George Clooney, who cowrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov. The film was inspired by the nonfiction book THE MONUMENTS MEN: ALLIED HEROES, NAZI THIEVES AND THE GREATEST TREASURE HUNT IN HISTORY by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter.
The Monuments Men were a group of art experts tasked with saving some of mankind's greatest art from destruction and theft during the latter part of the war. They went on the hunt for paintings and sculptures looted by the Nazis, eventually finding it everywhere from private homes to a castle to salt mines.
The recovery mission took on a new urgency as Germany faced defeat and Hitler ordered art destroyed rather than face it being reclaimed by the Allies. The Monuments Men were also in a race to get to the art ahead of the Russians, who planned to take such valuables to the Soviet Union rather than return it to the museums, churches, and private collections which had been robbed by the Nazis.
There were approximately 350 people from 13 countries who volunteered for the Monuments unit, ultimately rescuing over 5 million works of art. Like any other war film, THE MONUMENTS MEN zeroes in on a small group of people to tell their stories, played by Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Dimitri Leonidas.
Cate Blanchett is very convincing as a Frenchwoman, an art curator who pretended to collaborate with the Nazis but was actually working as a spy for the French Resistance; it's the job of James Granger (Damon) to win her confidence, which pays off with a secret list detailing everything she knows about art stolen from Paris. Blanchett's character, Claire Simone, was based on Rose Valland; her work also helped inspire the Burt Lancaster film THE TRAIN (1965).
I thought the film did an excellent job corralling a sprawling story in a coherent fashion, telling it in just under two hours. Some reviews have called the film "episodic," but while it does move from character to character to show their individual stories, I never wished I were watching another group of characters, which can be an issue with that method of storytelling; I also liked that the characters are pulled together as they travel to a castle and German salt mines in the last section of the movie, finding stores of treasures which call to mind the fabled last shot of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981).
Some of the reviews have been tepid, with a common complaint being that the movie "doesn't know what it wants to be." I think such reviews are missing something, and that it might be more accurate that the movie was not what some reviewers wanted it to be, such as a more raucous or cynical OCEAN'S 11 (2001) style caper or a more intense action film.
Instead this is a thoughtful, measured, more realistic war film about men who want to make a difference. There is humor and violence, but it's in keeping with the tone of the film. I found a positive review by Lou Lumenick to be more on target, as I found the film interesting and absorbing. I suspect this is one of those movies which will wear better over the long haul than it has done with the initial barrage of reviews.
The movie was filmed by Phedon Papamichael. I'm glad to say that for the most part it avoids the "fake," overly obvious computer images which I've felt has been a problem with some period films of more recent years. An army camp near the Battle of the Bulge was a particularly effective setting.
A fun footnote: That's former American Movie Classics host Nick Clooney playing his son George as an older man in the epilogue. I suspect George dubbed the voice.
Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG-13 for violence and "historical smoking" (I'm rolling my eyes on that one). There is wartime blood and death, but this is a mild PG-13, similar in tone to many films actually made during the war. The movie has strong positive messages in the examples of older men who left comfortable lives and entered military service because they felt an obligation to their nation and the world to preserve some of mankind's great achievements; my feeling is this film would be appropriate for some younger children as well. This is inspiring, old-fashioned filmmaking in the very best sense of the word.
As a side note, an exhibit on the Monuments Men opened yesterday at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery in Washington, D.C. It runs through April 20th.