Silver Screen: The Monuments Men ***1/2
During the waning months of World War II, as the Germans were pushed out of France by the Allies and squeezed from the east by the surging Russians, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt conscripted a platoon of unlikely soldiers for a special mission. Though Hitler’s stranglehold on Europe was weakening, the failed painter turned mad dictator had seized control of much of the Western world’s greatest art. Thousands of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and religious icons were squirreled away to be placed in a grand art museum honoring history’s most notorious failed art student. (I guess if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.) Fears abounded that, as the Führer’s loss became increasingly inevitable, he would issue a “Nero Decree,” ordering hundreds of years of masterpieces destroyed.
The task of Roosevelt’s elite force was to scour Europe and locate the art before Nazis could erase it from history. But these soldiers, nicknamed Monuments Men, were elite only in the peacetime sense of the word. They were historians, curators, and museum directors, many of them older, few of them with anything like combat experience, yet their mission would lead them to the front lines and into the teeth of Nazi gunfire.
This offbeat war story is the subject of George Clooney’s fifth feature as a director. Perhaps no star working today radiates Old Hollywood like Clooney, and appropriately The Monuments Men has the texture and sepia tinge of an old-fashioned war picture. The Monuments Men exists in blissful ignorance of Saving Private Ryan, the Maginot Line of modern war movies that separates more genteel, earlier efforts from the new crop of blood-splattered works that highlight the visceral horrors of combat. Also missing in action are the war-is-hell ethical quandaries that expose the moral ambiguities of fighting and dying for God and country. Yet despite its resistance of modernity— or at least cinema’s version of it— The Monuments Men is not blustery or anachronistic, nor is it a trifle. It’s a self-consciously minor movie about a tiny part of the much larger war effort, and it’s no less rich because of it.
Clooney, with his neat grey mustache, looks exactly like the sort of determined fellow who’d lead a group of men to their destiny at the dawn of the age of Technicolor. And so he does as Frank Stokes, the commander of a group that includes James Granger (Matt Damon), who spends much of his time on a solo mission extracting information from a potential French collaborator (Cate Blanchett); a disgraced British alcoholic (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville); sparring art-world rivals Richard Campbell and Preston Savitz (Bill Murray and Bob Balaban); jovial Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin); German-Jewish expat Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas); and American Walter Garfield (John Goodman). With assistance from Granger’s contact in France, they must crack a code to locate hidden caches of stolen art, then surge to the front lines to engage the retreating Germans before they can carry out their slash-and-burn orders.
The Monuments Men was slated for release during the December rush of awards-season favorites, but pushed back to February because, according to Clooney, post-production work wasn’t even close to complete. Moving a movie back on the calendar almost inevitably incites suggestions of a disaster, and The Monuments Men seemed further doomed by snarky memes on Twitter and social media deriding its focus on lost art. The gist of the pre-release backlash can pretty much be boiled down to the same repeated joke, “Glad George Clooney could stop Hitler from doing something really terrible, like burning some paintings,” as though it was insensitive by proxy for focusing on aspects of the war not directly related to the Holocaust or bloody frontline battles.
That preposterous criticism is impossible to take seriously for those who’ve actually seen the movie. Clooney, both as a director and cowriter (along with Grant Heslov), is acutely aware of where his subjects and their mission fit into the wider war effort. They don’t storm a beach, they arrive gently and unresisted to a sandy expanse fortified for a battle long past. The ghost of D-Day, and also of its cinematic recreations, hangs over every frame. Stokes’s men actively, explicitly debate the importance of their mission; it’s a quandary for them, too, and Clooney himself elegantly and accurately articulates the relative importance of their work late in the film. He notes that Hitler’s goal isn’t just to conquer, but to erase entire races of people from the planet. All men and women die, but their culture is the collective accomplishment they leave behind as a record of their existence. To destroy that is monstrous and final, and to fight against such a scheme is noble.
The Monuments Men is by no means a perfect movie, but its flaws are practical, not philosophical. Its greatest weakness is its lack of structure. The true accounts of the platoon are interesting, but in adapting the book by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, Clooney and Heslov never find a narrative in the story. As such, the events of the film are presented almost as a series of vignettes. The action occasionally leaps forward in time and shifts locations with little more than an expository excuse. Blanchett’s character is the most thoroughly developed and dominates the first half of the film, though she’s a tertiary presence who required at most a scene or two. Her presence seems more about trying to shoehorn a prominent role for a woman into the movie while also lending it a similarly superfluous romantic subplot. We’re rarely quite sure exactly where the main action is, and so the tangents and the central plotline are often indistinguishable.
However, from scene to scene, The Monuments Men is excellently rendered by Clooney and spectacularly acted by a wonderful ensemble. Murray seems to contain within him a bottomless reservoir of feeling, one he can reveal with the subtlest expression. He’s effortlessly soulful, and his scenes with the primly hilarious Balaban are the movie’s best. But perhaps only Murray could steal a scene from noted scene stealer John Goodman, who also makes one half of a fine duo with the immensely likable Dujardin.
Damn The Monuments Men with faint praise if you wish and label it a bit of minor art about the importance of major art. But it is undeniably artful.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.