If you had no military training, were past your physical prime, and were making a good living doing what you love to do, would you be willing to risk it all by entering into a war zone in an attempt to save some of the most important historical works of art from possible destruction? While this might make for a great start to a game of “What if,” for a group of men in the 1940’s, this very challenge became their reality.
World War II was winding down, and it had become known that Hitler had stolen many of the great works of art from the museums in the European countries he invaded. He was collecting the art to display in his own museum, which was to be built after he claimed victory in his conquests. But with the prospects of victory looking dimmer by the day, he left a different set of instructions: in the event of his death, all the art was to be destroyed. Picasso’s, Rembrandt’s, Michelangelo’s gone.
With knowledge of this potential devastating loss of history, the United States allowed a team to go into the war zone to try to find the stashes of art and to try to save works that had not yet been taken. It’s a remarkable, yet little known, true story from the “Greatest Generation,” and it’s the inspiration for George Clooney’s latest film The Monuments Men.
Clooney, who also co-wrote & produced the film with Grant Heslov, plays Frank Stokes, a curator at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. With the military stretched thin and unwilling to risk the lives of its soldiers on a mission that doesn’t hope to save any, Clooney must recruit his own team of art lovers to sneak behind enemy lines and track down the thousands of missing pieces of art. He ends up with a team of mostly out of shape and over-the-hill men who then break off into pairs to try and cover as much ground as possible in a short amount of time.
In casting actors to pair together, Clooney the director did a fantastic job. He started with Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon. Blanchett plays Claire Simon, a French art museum curator who goes to work for the Nazis in an attempt to keep track of where the art is being moved. She keeps meticulous records, but trusts nobody with the information. Damon plays James Granger, an artist tasked with luring Blanchett into his confidence in hopes of getting her to share what she knows.
Bill Murray and Bob Balaban make up the next high profile pairing. Having seen the two play wonderfully together in multiple Wes Anderson films, Clooney put them together and instructed Murray to “give Bob a hard time.” Murray was more than eager. Clooney also reteamed John Goodman and Jean Dujardin together for the first time since their Oscar turn in The Artist.
The teams set off on a series of journeys that are in turn exciting, humorous, and heart wrenching. They eventually rejoin forces near the end of the movie in a race against the clock (and a Russian military envoy) to try and save a large storage of art from destruction.
The Monuments Men has all the ingredients of a great film. The story is phenomenal, and though it is fictionalized for the movie, it is still very compelling. The cast is star studded, and each actor plays their part quite well. The score, by six time Oscar nominee Alexander Desplat, grabs hold of the viewer before the opening frame. And the philosophical themes explored about the value of historical works of art in relation to one individual’s life, is very thought provoking.
In spite of so many great key pieces, the film finds itself opening in February when it was once scheduled to be released in the heart of Oscar contender season in December. That may be due to several overly maudlin and sentimental moments when one of the characters, usually Clooney, drives home a heavy-handed message about the value of art and the hardships of war. The moments border on being preachy and transparently aimed at the audience rather than seeming to arise organically from the characters in the given circumstance. Each time, I found myself cringing slightly until the moment had passed. It’s a small complaint to have for such an otherwise engaging story, but it happened enough that it really disrupted the flow of the film for me.
Even with the overly sentimental moments, The Monuments Men is an inspiring film about a true story so amazing, it’s a wonder it hasn’t received greater attention previously. If you haven’t caught up on the Oscar contenders yet, you might want to put them ahead of it on your watch list, but if you’re caught up and looking for a story told with charm that can lead to a few good conversations afterwards, The Monuments Men could be worth your time this weekend.