A rarely known aspect of World War II was recently explored in this recently released war film. "THE MONUMENTS MEN"told the story about a group of men, established under the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in 1943, to recover pieces of art stolen by the Nazi, before they could be destroyed on the orders of Adolf Hitler.
Produced and written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and directed by Clooney; "THE MONUMENTS MEN" began in 1943 in which art conservation specialist and museum director Frank Stokes convinces U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow him to assumble an Army unit compromising of museum directors, curators, and art historians to search for stolen art treasures of the Western world and return it to the rightful owners. Stokes, portrayed by Clooney, assemble six other men:
*Lieutenant James Granger, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Donald Jeffries, British Army
*Sergeant Richard Campbell, U.S.A.
*Sergeant Walter Garfield, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Jean Claude Clermont, French Army
*Private Preston Savitz, U.S.A.
Stokes also recruited a U.S. Army enlisted soldier named Sam Epstein to act as his interpreter and driver. And in occupied France, In occupied Paris, an art curator named Claire Simone is forced to allow Nazi officers like Viktor Stahl to oversee the theft of art for either Adolf Hitler's proposed Führermuseum in Linz, German; or as the personal property of senior commanders like Herman Goering. She is nearly arrested for helping her Maquis brother unsuccessfully recapture such items. And later, all seems lost when Claire discovers that Stahl is taking all of her gallery's contents to Germany, while the Allies approach Paris. Stokes' unit is split up for various objectives throughout Western Europe. While most of them are frustrated by the Allies' combat units, which refuse to restrict their tactical options for the sake of preserving architecture; Granger, who ends up in occupied Paris, meets Simone and discovers that she will not cooperate with the Allies, whom she suspects of also being art looters.
I suspect that true art lovers - especially those enamored of European art - might find "THE MONUMENTS MEN" to be an emotional and satisfying tale in which the Allies not only persevered over the Nazi Army, but also saved a great deal of important art work from being destroyed. And there are those who were probably disappointed that "THE MONUMENTS MEN" was not some kind of stylish caper film in the style of Steven Soderbergh's "OCEAN'S ELEVEN" trilogy. How did I feel about "THE MONUMENTS MEN"? I found it entertaining, emotional, and surprisingly old-fashioned. Then again, this is a World War II drama about the preservation of famous Western art, in which the ages of the main stars range from early 40s to early 60s. More importantly, "THE MONUMENTS MEN" was released in February - a movie season that usually feature mediocre or bad films.
I could never regard "THE MONUMENTS MEN" a great film. I found the pacing uneven . . . especially in the movie's first half. I felt that both Clooney's direction and the script's depiction of the men's separation following their basic training rather confusing. I was especially confused by the whereabouts of the Donald Jeffries character. One minute he was in France with Stokes and Epstein. And in his next scene, he is in Belgium with no explanation in the movie's narrative of how he got there. Come to think of it, both Campbell and Savitz end up in Belgium . . . without Jeffries. Or was it Italy? Very confusing. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I found Matt Damon's performance rather flat. It almost seemed as if he was phoning it in - especially in the movie's first half. In some way, I think Clooney tried too hard to make the movie so profound that it ended up feeling . . . hmmm . . . flacid.
Thankfully, the movie's second half managed to be an improvement on the first. Especially since the Monument Men encountered more danger and their efforts to find the stolen art seemed to improve. Actually, the second half featured some action sequences that managed to inject some energy into the film's story. Audiences finally get to see the dangers that the Monuments Men faced in order to achieve their goal - Nazi troops in a Belgian convent, straying into the middle of a battleground that became deadly, an encounter with a lone armed German soldier, and a close encounter with a land mine. The second half also featured a few excellent scenes - including Campbell's reaction to a recorded letter from home during Christmas, Savitz's exposure of Stahl, Granger and Claire's near-romantic encounter inside her apartment, and Stokes' interrogation of one of the S.S. officers responsible for the attempted destruction of some of the stolen art.
Technically, "THE MONUMENTS MEN" is a beautiful and elegant looking film of the old-fashioned kind. First of all, I have to compliment Phedon Papamichael's sharp and colorful photography of England and Germany, which stood in for World War II-era Western Europe. Production designer James D. Bissell and his team did an admirable job in re-creating Western Europe during that period. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Bernhard Henrich's set designs in the sequences that featured the Allied camps near the Normandy beaches and the German mine, site of the first batch of art recovered. Louise Frogley's costume designs struck me as solid reflections of the years 1943-45. However, I must admit that I was not particularly impressed by Alexandre Desplat's score. I simply did not find it that memorable.
The performances in "THE MONUMENTS MEN" also struck me as solid, despite the star power featured in this film. I really do not see anyone receiving an award, let alone a nomination, for their work in this film. Hell, I would be surprised if anyone's performance was particularly singled out by critics or moviegoers alike. However, I did notice that Clooney, as a director, allowed each major character a chance to shine in a particular scene. Clooney got a chance to shine in the scene featuring Stokes' interrogation of the German officer. Both Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett generated a good deal of heat in the scene featuring Granger's near romantic dinner with Claire Simone. Bill Murray gave one of the most poignant performances in a scene featuring Campbell's silent reaction to a recording he had received from his family for Christmas. Bob Balaban was marvelous in the scene in which Savitz exposed Claire's former "supervisor" Stahl as a Nazi and thief with cold precision. Both John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, who had previously worked together in the Oscar winning film,"THE ARTIST", managed to create a strong chemistry in two scenes that featured Garfield and Claremont's encounter with a German sniper and their accidental wondering into a battlefield. But I feel that the best acting moment came from Hugh Bonneville, who did a marvelous job in conveying Jeffries' passion and sense of danger in a scene featuring the character's encounter with Germans at a Belgium convent.
Look, "THE MONUMENTS" is no classic. And I do not think it is the best movie I have seen this winter. It might be a bit too old-fashioned for the tastes of some (I can endure it). And if I must be brutally honest, the first half of Clooney and Grant Henslov's script came off as limpid and confusing. But a strong second half and some golden moments by a talented cast led by Clooney more or less saved "THE MONUMENTS" for me.