Was it worth risking the lives of men just for the sake of saving art?
That’s the question asked throughout THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) the new World War II adventure written and directed by George Clooney, based on a true story, about a group of mostly middle-aged men enlisted by the army to reclaim the works of art stolen by Hitler and the Nazis, works of art that Hitler originally intended to place in a museum, until the waning days of the war when he ordered his men to destroy it all. It’s up to the Monuments Men to save these works of art, but first, they have to find them.
Frank Stokes (George Clooney) seeks and receives permission from President Roosevelt to assemble a group of art experts to go into France and then Germany to recover the huge amounts of art stolen by the Nazis. Since all the young art experts are already enlisted in the armed forces, Stokes is forced to assemble his team of art specialists, architects, and museum curators, from a pool of men beyond their fighting years.
The movie gets these introductions out of the way early, as we quickly meet James Granger (Matt Damon) who wasn’t able to enlist because of poor vision, Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), as well as their young translator, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas).
Once in Europe, Stokes pairs the men and gives each duo a specific task, the goal being to locate the various places in which the Nazis hid the stolen art. Campbell pairs with Savitz, an interesting twosome since they hate each other, and Garfield pairs with Jean Claude, while Granger is assigned the difficult task of getting to know a French woman Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who worked for the resistance and who they believe has valuable information as to where the Nazis hid all the stolen art. The trouble is, Claire trusts no one, and she suspects the Americans only want the art for themselves, and she tells Granger as much.
When the Nazis realize there is little hope of winning the war, Hitler orders his troops to destroy all the artwork as they pull out in retreat, which adds more pressure on the Monuments Men to locate the art as soon as possible. It also places them in harm’s way as they need to be close to the action in order to get to the art before the Nazis soldiers destroy it.
Further complicating matters is that the Russians are also confiscating the art as they move in, only they’re taking it back to Russia, not returning it to its original owners. It’s up to the Monuments Men to find these stolen treasures first so that they’re not lost to the western world.
THE MONUMENTS MEN is a very enjoyable movie filled with colorful characters and plenty of entertaining and humorous moments intertwined with some poignant ones, and even some suspense, but the trouble is its message that recovering the stolen art was worth risking the lives of these men doesn’t always ring true.
Clearly, writer/director George Clooney believes the sacrifice was worth it, but the movie doesn’t succeed in making this point. For one thing, it tries too hard. It asks the question “is it worth it?” so much it hammers you over the head with it.
We see the Monuments Men engaged in various little adventures, which for the most part are all very entertaining, but compared to other soldiers— the soldiers at Normandy, for example— their sacrifice doesn’t feel the same. The script by Clooney and Grant Heslov probably needed more time in the shop to get the message right.
Don’t get me wrong. The amount of art the Nazis stole was incredible, and had this been lost or destroyed, it would have been heartbreaking. What the Monuments Men did was remarkable, but hitting the audience over the head with the notion that their mission was an amazing sacrifice somehow sounds hollow compared to what the rest of the soldiers were fighting for.
Another problem is Clooney’s Frank Stokes is a rather cold fish. He’s not the best point man for selling an argument to an audience. I almost wish the story had been told from the perspective of Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone character, who was a much more interesting and intriguing character than Clooney’s Frank Stokes. Seen through her eyes, the Monuments Men would have been perceived as what they were, men doing the world a service, recovering people’s history and culture, but hearing Blanchett’s Simone say this, a woman whose brother was murdered by the Nazis, and who didn’t trust the Americans, it would have held more relevance than hearing it from Clooney’s stoic Stokes.
By far, the best part of THE MONUMENTS MEN is its talented cast, who really bring these guys to life.
George Clooney is just okay as Frank Stokes, but this is fine since he’s the level-headed one leading the team. Matt Damon fares about the same as James Granger and is rather low-key throughout. It’s the rest of the team that really shines.
It was great to see Bill Murray in this role as Richard Campbell, and he and Bob Balaban enjoy some fine moments together, some of the best in the film. The scene where they’re surprised by a young Nazi soldier in the woods, and they end up sharing a cigarette is one of the best in the movie. As is the scene when Murray hears a record sent to him by his family. It’s a nice reminder that Bill Murray is much more than just a comic actor.
I also really enjoyed John Goodman and Jean Dujardin. The scene where they’re fending off a sniper is a keeper.
But even better than all the Monuments Men is Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone. She delivers the best performance in the film. She also has one of the more emotional scenes in the film, when she’s told by her Nazi employer that her brother has been shot dead. It’s a disturbing moment in a film that is strangely devoid of disturbing moments, a curious thing in a movie about Nazis.
The film would have benefitted from a visible Nazi villain. Other than Simone’s boss who’s really not in the film all that much, there’s no one who makes your blood boil. The villains are random soldiers with rifles.
In terms of entertainment, THE MONUMENTS MEN scores high. I really enjoyed watching these guys and their efforts to recover the multitude of stolen art items. Where it struggles is in its message that these men were putting their lives on the line for a cause equally as noble as the soldiers fighting to defeat genocide and world domination.
That’s a difficult point to make. Perhaps the movie didn’t need to try.