A Movie Review
of Monuments Men (2014)
By Lance Zedric
Often the best war films are not about war. While they occur in the shadow of death, destruction, and misery, they focus on what Abraham Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature,” and illuminate the unsung efforts of those who preserve rather than destroy. Other films entertain and educate without being too heavy. Monuments Men (Paramount 2014) does all three.
Beginning with the blitzkrieg in 1939 and lasting for the next six years of World War II, the German Army plundered some of the greatest works of art in Europe. Many were earmarked for Hitler’s grandiose post-war “Fuehrer Museum,” while others were stashed away by greedy senior officers, including Nazi Germany’s number two man Hermann Goering. But with the allied invasion of Europe in June 1944, Germany’s fate was sealed. It was trapped between two military juggernauts—the U.S. and British forces from the west and the Soviets from the east, and by March 1945 with defeat all but assured, Hitler issued the Nero Decree, his version of “scorched earth”, directing the military to destroy the monuments and art (along with everything else) of the occupied nations before retreating to Germany for the final stand. Fortunately, 345 men and women from 13 nations, officially known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) were assembled to help locate and recover the art and preserve the monuments that had defined western civilization for over a millennium. All told, the unit recovered over 5 million relics and works of art.
At the center of the movie is Frank Stokes, wonderfully played by actor/director George Clooney, whose character gains an audience with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 to help find, recover, preserve, and return art works, relics, and monuments from war-torn Europe. Roosevelt gives the okay and Stokes assembles a small unit of middle-age art scholars and architects comprised of Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Preston Savitz (Bob Balavan), and James Granger (Matt Damon). The Monuments Men complete basic training and are shipped to Europe in July 1944, a month after D-Day. They form into small teams and are joined by interpreter Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin).
The action then moves to occupied Paris, where museum employee and resistance fighter, Claire Simone, marvelously portrayed by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, secretly catalogues the art being stolen by a greedy Nazi colonel in front of the allied advance. In Paris, Granger (Damon) learns of Simone and eventually wins her trust [and unrequited affection], and armed with the list, chases the haul of stolen art and tracks down the Nazi colonel. Meanwhile, other teams scour liberated Europe for objects d’art and race against the Soviet Trophy Brigade that was tasked with recovering Russia’s share of Europe’s art treasures.
At first glance, the eclectic ensemble presents all the “wrong stuff” and is a loveable, nerdy version of “Expendables” without the action, edge or angst. The characters’ personality quirks and lack of physical homogeneity connects with audiences and enhances rather than detracts from the film. The good-natured banter and mutual respect earned through shared danger and hardship was marvelously conveyed by the actors and was a strength of the movie. Comic relief was well-timed, appropriate, and juxtaposed with poignant and moving scenes illustrating the longing for home, loss of human life, and the joys and sorrows faced by those who experience war. Damon turned in another solid performance in a career marked by such. In a limited role, Bill Murray displayed depth not seen since his work in The Razor’s Edge (1984). Not to be outdone, John Goodman was outstanding. Emotional versatility, impeccable comedic timing, sheer physical presence, and a tired, drawn face that told a story of pain, particularly at the death of a friend, underscores his “every guy” quality and illustrates his enduring audience appeal.
On the technical side, the quality of photography and the use of light and shadow didn’t disappoint. In keeping with the spirit of the film, the vivid cinematography conveyed nostalgia as rich as the art it represented, and the variety of shooting locations engaged the audience and provided geographic scope and historical context to the unit’s endeavors.
While undeserving of an Oscar, Monuments Men is the confluence of an incredible true story, the perfect villain, and great acting. The richly layered feel good movie is a solid artistic effort—not just another Hollywood paint by the numbers product that capitalizes on an A-List cast validated by the ars gratia artis mantra. Rather, it is an entertaining history and art appreciation class without the drool or head nods that offers something for every palette—even those with a distaste for military fare. 8/10 Stars.
Actors John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray.
Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone, AKA: Rose Valland.