Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Monuments Men review

During World War II, the Allies tasked art academicians the duty of preserving culture from destruction. These men and women ("Monuments, Fine Art and Archives" program) were also asked to find art that the Nazis had looted. It also meant that these scholarly types were asked to put on the uniforms. In 2009, a book written by Robert Edsel about these scholars was published called "The Monuments Men." Now comes a new fictional movie with the same name based on the book with a screenplay by George Clooney, and Grand Heslov. Clooney also directs.

George Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a man who asks President Roosevelt to preserve the artistic culture of Western civilization from the destruction of war. The President agrees and lets Stokes form an army unit with the purpose of preserving the art of Europe. That might mean persuading the military from bombing a certain church but as the Nazis retreat with their stolen art, it turns into the job of art recovery. Stokes enlists art academicians from all walks of life. Many are middle aged unlike the soldiers fighting the war. There's James Granger (Matt Damon) who's a curator for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Walter Garfield (John Goodman) who's a sculptor. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) is a Renaissance man who's an adept expert at ballet and painting. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) is the unit's architecture expert. Other members of the unit are Free French officer Jean Dumont (Jean Dujardin) and British soldier Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) who's had a troubled past and in need of redemption.

The performances are fine if a little static. If you didn't know she was based on a real person, Cate Blanchett's character Claire Simone feels like a throwaway love interest for Matt Damon. It's good that the real and fictional Simone had an important role in the recovery of the stolen art in real life and the in the movie. Best moments in this movie are the more emotional ones that deal with the character's personal lives, that is the lives they left. They belong to Hugh Bonneville who's trying to turn his life around. There's a heartbreaking moment with the usually comic Billy Murray when he hears a recording of his granddaughter sing, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

But there's a coldness to the film. That lies with the screenplay and Clooney's direction. Yes, there are speeches. That's okay because the message to preserve art needs to be told. But the movie fumbles the ball when it depicts a dying soldier. There's nothing that can be done for him, the wounds are too serious. Yet, Clooney declines a gut wrenching death scene. It just sits there. Then there's an ill advised depiction of Granger's undercover work in occupied France. It was not needed and slowed down the dramatic drive. Maybe this was in the movie to give star Matt Damon more screen time. I do appreciate the humor in the movie. And with the passing of Harold Ramis, there's a scene where Murray shoulders a rifle that reminds me of "Stripes."

But one can't leave this film without thinking about the film's central idea. If the Nazis steal and destroy the art of Western Europe, it would be like erasing the history of Western civilization. I applaud Clooney for bringing this story to the screen. For its earnestness, the movie delivers a strong message on the importance of art. The grade is A.

No comments: