Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Monuments Men

THE MONUMENTS MEN (George Clooney, 2014)

Dismayed at the immense amount of art the Germans are stealing during World War II and the historic sites being damaged in battles, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) gets approval to lead a platoon of art experts to minimize the cultural losses as much as possible.  The seven-man team in THE MONUMENTS MEN hunts for the missing treasures and gives advice to military commanders about significant buildings they hope will be unharmed in combat.  The motley crew of newly minted American soldiers includes New York museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon) and architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) as well as Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), a Brit with a drinking problem, and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a Frenchman whose sight and hearing deficiencies prevent him from being a fighter pilot.

Intending to protect and locate as much art as possible, the unit is spread across the European theater.  Jeffries, Campbell, and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) head to Belgium, with the Brit going to Bruges to secure Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child and the other two tasked with protecting the Ghent Altarpiece.  Granger goes to newly liberated France where he tries to pry information from Parisian museum worker Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett).  Although suspected of being a collaborator, she kept a detailed list of the art that passed through a sorting house while the Nazis employed her. Claire is hesitant to share her records because she thinks that, like the Russians, the Americans will keep the pieces rather than return them to their original owners.  Sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Clermont are dispatched to Germany.  The already difficult job of the Monuments Men takes on greater urgency when Hitler orders the destruction of all looted artwork if he dies or Germany falls.

Based on a fascinating true story, THE MONUMENTS MEN strives for grandeur but amounts to something ordinary under Clooney’s execution as director and co-writer with Grant Heslov.  The effort to recover and preserve millions of cultural objects is earnestly recounted.  The nobility of the mission isn’t in question, but relentless reminders of what is at stake feels like a failure to give audiences credit for understanding it.  Although the Monuments Men suffer casualties, precious little about their assignments feels urgent.

Clooney keeps the tone relatively light, almost as if this operation is a fast one that the Allies pull on Hitler, yet he resists indulging the comedically broad or darkly humorous. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS or a wartime OCEAN’S ELEVEN this isn’t.  The human cost of the war rests heavily on the proceedings often enough not to be forgotten.  One of the film’s best scenes comes when a record from home is played over the camp radio.  The touching moment reminds of what is left behind during wartime and how objects have value beyond their components’ worth, yet the melancholy it brings is an awkward fit with the overall weightlessness of the characters’ experiences.  The impulse not to be too jokey is understandable, but Clooney never quite gets a handle on balancing the mission between a lark and life-or-death matter.   

With members of the team working in various part of the continent, THE MONUMENTS MEN often feels scattered.  The individual stories unspool like a jumble of decent anecdotes that add up to less than their sum.  None of the Monuments Men define themselves beyond being slight variations of one another.  The underutilization of this cast stands as the film’s biggest disappointment.  THE MONUMENTS MEN plays well enough as an old-fashioned call to live according to lofty ideals, yet the fulfilling of this pursuit is more humdrum than spirited.

Grade: C+

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