George Clooney puts the fun back into World War II with his film of the true exploits of The Monuments Men
With its starry cast and tag line ‘the greatest art heist in history’, The Monuments Men comes across as Ocean’s Eleven in camouflage.The presence of both George Clooney and Matt Damon doesn’t really help to dispel this impression and, along with the film’s slightly uneven tone, may have contributed to some very negative reviews. Which is a shame because the film doesn't really deserve such treatment. The Monuments Men is a well made and largely enjoyable romp that’s based upon a real Army division created during World War II. It might well be the historical aspects of the story that have incurred much of the critical wrath because, in these post Saving Private Ryan days, it’s largely frowned upon to make jokes about World War II.It wasn’t always so, with the sixties delivering some of the most enjoyable Second World War movies, including Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes. Of course none of those stories were based on anything approaching reality and no doubt Quentin Tarantino’s total disregard for historical accuracy with Inglorious Basterds also helped him escape such criticism. The Monuments Men, by comparison, is based firmly on the real story of a group of art experts and architects who were tasked with trying to find and return all the art that the Nazis plundered during their occupation of Europe.
The film sets up its central premise brilliantly at the very beginning, with a shot of a ruined Italian town and amongst the rubble Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The wall on which the mural is painted is still standing, although the rest of the church has been destroyed, showing just how fragile these great works of art are in the face of the most destructive war in human history. Sadly having used this clever image to setup the film, Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov then continue to ram this point home with some heavy handed exposition.
The film stars Clooney as Frank Stokes, who persuades US President Franklin D. Roosevelt that victory in World War II will have little meaning if the art treasures of Western civilisation are lost - either through collateral damage or looting. He is directed to assemble an Army unit, nicknamed “The Monuments Men,” comprised of museum directors, curators, art historians and architects. Their job is to guide Allied commanders in what to bomb and what not to bomb, where possible, and search for stolen art which they will attempt to return to the rightful owners.
The team face a difficult but important task and Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov constantly remind us of this fact.
In reality, there were over 360 Monuments Men but in order the simplify the story, Clooney and Heslov, have reduced them to a team of just seven. Aside from Clooney and Damon, the rest of the Monuments Men are Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin. Helping them in their task is Claire Simone, a museum curator in Paris who was forced by the Nazis to oversee the theft of much of the artwork in the city. Simone is played by Cate Blanchett, with a French accent that is just the right side of ‘Allo ‘Allo.
It’s talented cast but one of the problems with the film is that it spends almost no time introducing its main characters; they are, in fact, assembled during the opening credits. This means you know very little about them, despite the fact they're based on real people, making it difficult to empathise with their plight later. Clooney and Heslov should have spent more time filling in their characters’ back stories rather than constantly reminding us how important and difficult their task is.
However, the cast work hard with what they have and their innate talent at least makes them memorable. The writers give each of them individual scenes, although the episodic nature of the story means they are often in small groups for long periods of time. So you have Damon and Blanchett in Paris, Balaban and Murray at the Battle of the Bulge and Goodman and Dujardin investigating a salt mine. The problem is that you don't feel that they are a team until the final act of the movie when the surviving members are all working together.
There’s certainly no denying the enormity of the tream's task, not only were Allied commanders understandably more concerned about their soldiers’ lives than works of art but the Nazis were fairly systematic in their looting of Western Europe. To make matters worse, the Russians had their own “Trophy Brigade” who were busy taking art back to Russia as reparations for the appalling damage the country had suffered during the war.
It’s the reality of the war itself that makes the tone of the film slightly schizophrenic because whilst the Monuments Men themselves are often joking around, we’re constantly reminded of the devastation the war has wrought, not only in terms of the damage to towns and cities but also the cost in human lives. Much of the art that they are searching for was stolen from the private collections of Jewish families and when the film is making references to the Holocaust, it’s hard to laugh.
The film's tone is slightly schizophrenic, going from jokey to serious in the same scene.
The tone of the film will often change within the same scene, which makes it hard to decide what it really wants to be. Clooney appears to be making a film that harks back to the WW2 romps of the Sixties, before Vietnam changed the public perception of warfare by showing it live in people's living rooms. However, he also touches on the harsh reality of what was the most destructive war in human history. Perhaps the film would have been better served by a fictional story or a smaller scale because the real story of The Monuments Men is probably better served by a thorough documentary.
That's not to say it isn't an enjoyable film, Clooney is a very capable director who coordinates the scale of it all extremely well, delivering plenty of fun, and even emotion, in what is essentially a rather old-fashioned movie. Although this works against Clooney in some respects with no war cliche left untouched - the unseen sniper who turns out to be a child has to be the oldest trick in the book. However, concerns about the film's episodic structure and shifting tone aside, The Monuments Men remains an enjoyable romp with a skilled director and a likeable cast. It tells the true story of a previously unknown but important chapter in the history of World War II and, if nothing else, will help you really appreciate all the art that these brave men and woman managed to save.
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