In the last three years of World War II, while Hitler was ravaging Europe, a small group of soldiers, historians and academics joined forces, under the approval and guidance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to locate, rescue and return to their rightful owners the European art treasures of the world, artifacts stolen from museums, churches and private collectors by the Third Reich. These unheralded heroes were called the Monuments Men. This is their story. It is true. It is history. As a film, it is riveting, suspenseful, harrowing and exciting, and somehow, it also manages to be something rare among war pictures—a big-scale entertainment.
The Monuments Men ★★★½
Written by: George Clooney and Grant Heslov
The Monuments Men covers so much territory that it is difficult to know just where to begin. In his best directed film since Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov, proves he’s more than just another pretty face, collating archival information from the great book by Robert M. Edsel into a solid adventure story that seldom lags. Mr. Clooney, with fewer hully-chee smirks than usual, also plays the paterfamilias of the platoon—an art historian named Frank Stokes, based on renowned Harvard art conservationist George Stout. He gathers six colleagues too old for the trenches and too out of shape for boot camp—one curator of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum (Matt Damon), one architect (Bill Murray), one sculptor (John Goodman), one French art dealer (Jean Dujardin), one historian (Bob Balaban), one British art expert (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) and a young German Jew who acts as a driver and translator (Dimitri Leonidas).
We follow their meticulous sleuthing, from their landing on an allied-protected beach at Normandy to the farmhouses and country hamlets of France and Belgium and all the way to the Battle of the Bulge and ending under the German salt mines where they uncover 16,000 concealed treasures stored for Hitler’s proposed Fuhrer Museum nestled among 100 tons of gold from the fillings in the teeth of captured Jews. The Monuments Men were racing against time to protect Picassos and Rembrandts and Da Vinci’s Last Supper from both the retreating Nazis and the advancing Russians, while trying to convince the skeptics (including two U.S. presidents) that the work was imperative to remind the world that civilization is defined by the quality of its art—a still evolving subject that has only been addressed once on the screen, in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) with Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau.
There is tragedy along the way, but humor, too. Everyone has a strong scene—Mr. Damon as James Granger, who accidentally stands on a mine while the others try to figure out how to detonate it, and director Clooney, when his character tells a captured Nazi commandant how he’ll relish reading his obituary while visiting a Jewish delicatessen when he gets back to New York. There’s a running gag about James’s terrible French, which he learned, to the horror of the French allies, in Montreal. There’s a moving scene in a makeshift hospital camp in Germany where a phonograph record from home plays “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” over a loudspeaker for the dying and wounded soldiers. O.K., Mr. Clooney can be shamelessly manipulative, but I’ll be damned if the scene doesn’t work as forcefully as the sight of the German swastika flying over the roofs of Paris.
Critics in the trades and at the Berlin Film Festival have dispatched mixed reviews, objecting to poetic license, like the near-romance between James and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a mousy, bespectacled Resistance fighter based on real-life curator Rose Valland, who worked as a secretary for Hermann Goring when he used the Jeu de Paume Museum in 1943 to store Nazi plunder, risking her life to secretly document the shipment of every work of art transported to Germany by her boss. In what I assume to be a fictional add-on for the sake of melodrama and a touch of sentiment, she befriends James after she is falsely imprisoned as a German collaborator and entrusts him with her ledgers and journals. This act of altruism and Claire’s subsequent attempt to seduce the highly ethical all-American husband played by Mr. Damon may be Mr. Clooney’s ruse to raise the blood pressure and arouse the audience’s possible waning interest in a film that is otherwise totally sexless. But in reality, Ms. Valland’s meticulous records did lead to the recovery of thousands of masterpieces the Monuments Men would otherwise never have located.
Jim Bissell’s magnificent sets, stunning location camerawork throughout Europe by Phedon Papamichael and a fabulous score by composer Alexandre Desplat that brought tears to my eyes are all big reasons why a movie this massive deserves bravos. With looted art still turning up in Germany every year, the search continues, so the movie could not be more relevant. At a time crowded with moronic action flicks, pointless remakes and animated juvenilia, it’s a genuine pleasure to experience a mature film about something that changed the world. Staging so many vignettes over such a protracted period of time frames with such a large cast in such a variety of countries, a disconnected sense of “wait a minute, what’s going on here?” is inevitable. But The Monuments Men is still one hell of a monumental motion picture.
Thirty years from now, will anyone remember the accomplishments of those saviors of five-million works of art that enriched the aesthetic history of the world? Thanks to George Clooney, they will now.