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I see George Clooney's charming The Monuments Men a throwback to old style 50s war films - The Monuments Men Review

Friday, February 14, 2014 Craig Grobler 0 Comments

The Monuments Men Film Review

I have to hand it to George Clooney, much like his character in the Oceans trilogy or indeed The Monuments Men, the guy can pretty much assemble any team in the world, make any film he wants to and milk it BUT - or maybe it's in spite of that – to his credit, he continues to make films that are unexpected and unique. Not an easy feat in the over-saturated copy and paste cultural mishmash that feeds the psyche of the business of show and more specifically when it comes to World War 2 tales.

Now don't get me wrong The Monuments Men probably won't be in my top 10 films of the year and it probably won't set the world abuzz like say a Batman film but I'm pretty sure it's the kind of film that families will enjoy watching together. It will no doubt be re-watched annually as it merges itself into our cultural zeitgeist and grows an ever-increasing audience much in the same vein as many of those classic family films that are shown every Christmas (The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Sound of Music) - with enough charm, wit of the gallows humour variety, hints at Indiana Jones-style adventure, tense and entertaining bits that each family member will have a different or shared favourite scene whilst the underlying message is never forgotten. And I'm pretty sure that is exactly the kind of film George Clooney set out to make with The Monuments Men. To make it work getting the right cast involved would be key and Clooney is just the man to bring it together.
The Monuments Men Poster
The Monuments Men Poster ZOOM

The Monuments Men

An unlikely World War II platoon are tasked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their owners.

George Clooney


George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Robert M. Edsel, Bret Witter

George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Dimitri Leonidas

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Some background - if you have read my previous ramblings about Clooney's body of work you'll possibly know that I am of the opinion that any film that Clooney attaches his name to is going to be a quality production, as is The Monuments Men. Despite this acknowledgement, my fondness of his films veers wildly from just OK to the pretty damn awesome (Michael ClaytonUp In The Air) and ends with The American having grown into one of my favourite viewing experiences. I feel the same way about his previous directorial efforts: Good Night, and Good LuckLeatherheads and The Ides of March as I do The Monuments Men. And I'm pretty sure that if you enjoyed any of the aforementioned films you'll love The Monuments Men. If not it may take a couple of viewing till you are quoting lines and wondering why you never enjoyed in the first place.

By its very definition Art means different things to different people. And I'm not going to bang on about the importance of artistic self-expression or how art mirrors society and is a doorway to understanding our past as well as ourselves. But I do work in and write a blog mainly about film, one of the many artistic forms of self-expression - so that should really be an indication of my feelings of the importance of art in our world. At a high level, I believe that to appreciate art is to love yourself and love humanity (or vice versa), on a more tactile level decoding art reveals something about both the creator and the audience as we search for meaning and connection. If you are an art fan you'll see constant glimpses and references to many mythical art pieces, sadly some still lost or destroyed.

The Establishing Shot: THE MONUMENTS MEN TRAILER - 14 FEBRUARY 2014

The Monuments Men is based on a factual book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel (a pretty interesting man in his own right and Founder and Chairman of The Monuments Men Foundation) the book is about a group of some 300 men and women put together to recover and protect art from falling into Nazi hands. Part of Hitler's grand plan was to acquire all the art that he could pillage from the countries the Nazis invaded (well art that he and his cronies considered good) and house it in an uber museum in his own honour. But as the war continues  Hitler issues the “Nero Decree” stating that if anything happens to him or the Nazis plans for world domination - all the art collected must be destroyed - so as events on the European theatre of World War II unfold the clock is ticking down for the substantial collection stolen by the Nazis from across Europe.

Matt Damon & George Clooney THE MONUMENTS MEN
Matt Damon (left) and George Clooney in Columbia Pictures' THE MONUMENTS MEN ZOOM
Based on the true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history, The Monuments Men focuses on an unlikely World War II platoon, tasked by FDR with going into Germany to rescue artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners.

It would be an impossible mission: with the art trapped behind enemy lines, and with the German army under orders to destroy everything as the Reich fell, how could these guys – seven museum directors, curators, and art historians, all more familiar with Michelangelo than the M-1 – possibly hope to succeed?  But as the Monuments Men, as they were called, found themselves in a race against time to avoid the destruction of 1000 years of culture, they would risk their lives to protect and defend mankind’s greatest achievements.

The Monuments Men stolen art infographic
The Monuments Men stolen art infographic ZOOM
The film starts with Clooney's character Frank Stokes trying to sell the idea of saving all the art as, well its all the art, and he proposes that:
You can wipe out a generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground and they'll still find there way back. But if you destroy their history, destroy their achievements, it is if they never existed. That is what Hitler wants. That is exactly what we are fighting for.”
I only have to think about London and if all the art, street-art, architecture, film, theatre, performance art and other forms of self expression were appropriated - the City would be a very different place, the cultural ramifications would be astounding. As much as a people are at the city’s heart the loss of art would render it soulless. The premise is a weighty subject but Clooney never lays it on too thick in fact his his whole approach is to keep it light, tinged with just enough drama to hint at the darkness and madness of war just underneath the surface. It is the kind of film that you expect the heroes to break into a song or at least whistle a defiant tune in unison.

Understandably throughout the film selling his mission and getting support is an uphill battle as retrieving art has a diminishing value as the ground war escalates and countless lives are at stake.

Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville & George Clooney THE MONUMENTS MEN
(l to r) Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville and George Clooney in Columbia Pictures' THE MONUMENTS MEN ZOOM
Against the odds Stokes pulls together a crack team of 6 other men. His second in command James Granger ( Matt Damon),  Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman),  Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), a Brit Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and a Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). They are later joined by Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas) who is touchingly based on Mr. Harry Ettlinger the last surviving member of  the real Monuments Men (still wise cracking into his 90s) and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). The Monuments Men is a quality production with a talented cast putting in charming and witty performances but Cate Blanchett comes close to stealing the show as her character the only lady of the piece is shown to possibly be the bravest and strongest of all the Monuments Men.

THE MONUMENTS MEN Dimitri Leonidas, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bob Balaban
Dimitri Leonidas, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bob Balaban in Columbia Pictures' action thriller THE MONUMENTS MEN ZOOM
Unfortunately our Clean half a Dozen's expertise are in fine arts, rather than martial arts. And our team of volunteers average age must be in the 50s, don't expect any high kicking, rope climbing Oceans style stuff - our team are relying on intelligence and experience. In this regard Clooney has tried  for the most part to try keep the heroics of the tale as true as possible and respect the memory of the real Monuments Men. At the core of the story is a group of people, slightly past their physical prime who are well established pillars of society that have bravely/insanely volunteered to go to give up their comfortable lives to go to war for an ideal.

Again Clooney does not lay this on too thick . Rather he leaves to fill in the dots whilst he shows you the best and most decent of humanity and what we should be striving for as a species. Once I understood this - the expectations set by having a top tier cast that includes Private Ryan in a World War 2 film directed by George Clooney with a trailer that sells it as Oceans Seven go to war  – The Monuments Men became immeasurably more of a pleasure to watch and a  refreshing change from the darkness that usually accompanies this subject matter.  Just to return to my early Oceans non comparison -  The Monuments Men is closer to Mssrs. Smith goes to War. In fact everything about the The Monuments Men feels like it is from a film made years ago and I suspect that it will play well to family audiences. I wouldn't be surprised if it was suggested that there was some discussion initially about filming it in Black and white, as with Clooney's earlier Good Night, and Good Luck.) keep an eye out for the scene where George Clooney channels Clark Gable and is made up to his splitting image.

Cate Blanchett in Columbia Pictures' THE MONUMENTS MEN ZOOM
It appears that Clooney intends to have his own voice. By which I mean he could have probably made a film kowtowing to the usual tropes of a war film to meet our expectations - he doesn't he makes a different film. A key element to his style is steering clear of modern conventions and clichés, rather than the obvious crowd pleasing or shock devices and tropes that we have become accustomed to in our race to embrace the latest and shiny cutting edge. Clooney's film deal with timeless issues, issues that we have always dealt with. Issues that were as relevant when they were topical as they are now, in our post modern world were we have already compartmentalised these issues and how they have been addressed in film previously. He delivers this through a lens more reflective of a past age with characters that are subject to sense and sensibilities that may be out of fashion with some modern audiences. Key to this is a strong sense of decency which runs through all his films. And I have to say I'm glad that he is still out making these films even if only as a reminder of who we could be.

The tale of The Monuments Men is an old fashioned light men on a mission style story told from the perspective of these learned every men who slowly start discovering that they may well be in over their heads as some of the horror of one of the most destructive wars to blight us is revealed through their individual or shared adventures.

(l to r) Sam Epstein, George Clooney, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Matt Damon in Columbia Pictures' THE MONUMENTS MEN. ZOOM
To delve into the detail of events and flesh out all the characters portrayed would take much longer than the film's runtime allows, and at times it feels like the performances are a little "day player" which is very much in line with style and technique of films of yesteryear that Clooney is emulating with The Monuments Men .The concept would make a great TV series featuring "the rescued art of the week" and a dramatised version of how the team recovered each piece. I'm just throwing it out there.

The Monuments Men is a witty and entertaining romp with a dazzling cast pulling off daring performances that should please older audiences that appreciate its old fashion values as well as a younger new audience unable to access films or media that portray war in gritty and the tragic realism we are accustomed to now. However I think some audience may struggle with the subtlety and lack of blatant grandstanding or sledgehammer point making in the film but I believe that much of that audience will come around to The Monuments Men over time. At the very least The Monuments Men has brought Art back into focus.

Not to digress too much – one of the most memorable scene for me would be a toss up between the record scene featuring Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) or the too short scene where Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) confront one of the film's antagonists. Whilst it bears similarities to a scene from Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds it feels entirely different and need I say it? Bill Murray is in it. I can't be the only person that sees the symmetry of a full circle of a young Bill Murry going to war in Stripes and here again as an older man in The Monuments Men? Class.

The Monuments Men is in UK cinemas from today Fri 14 February 2014

For more

The National Gallery is home to some of the most prestigious works of art in the UK and was once the workplace of Cecil Gould, a Deputy Director at the gallery and real life “Monuments Man” following WW2. In addition, the gallery houses two paintings which were once in Nazi possession during WW2: Cranach’s “Cupid Complaining to Venus” (c.1525) was part of Adolf Hitler's private collection and Paolo Uccello’s “Saint George and the Dragon” (c.1460), seized at the beginning of WW2 by Hitler who gave orders that it should be destroyed rather than fall into the hands of the Allies.

Cranach’s “Cupid Complaining to Venus” will feature in the National Gallery exhibition Strange Beauty opening on 19 February.

The Monuments Men Slideshow