During the latter days of World War 2, Hitler signed a decree stating that if he dies and Germany falls, his men were to destroy all the great works of European art stolen during the last few years from homes, churches and museums. The Monuments Men is based on a true story about the seven men - an Allied platoon of art historians, museum directors and curators – whose mission it was to fly in to war torn Europe while the war was still being fought, pretend to be soldiers and rescue those masterpieces.
“This is our history,” states George Clooney as real life art conservation specialist George Stout, “And it is not to be destroyed.”
The question as to whether a man’s life is worth the retrieval of a work of art is repeated throughout the film, and it is one that will be tested, but the seven men who comprised of the singular platoon are both determined and dedicated to completing their mission. Art is their life and passion. From their perspective, finding as much of the stolen masterpieces is of paramount importance. “We’re fighting for our culture,” Stout continues, “Our way of life.” If they stand back and allow the great works of Van Gogh, Renoir, Vermeer and Michelangelo among others to simply vanish, the very foundation of modern society is destroyed.
“You want to go into a war zone and tell our boys what they can and cannot blow up?” asks Matt Damon as James Rorimer, curator and director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as Stout attempts to recruit him.
There’s a certain feeling of familiarity that comes while watching The Monuments Men. It’s not so much that you think you’ve seen it all before, but with its tone, its humor, and its overall look, the film tends to echo the good natured caper adventures of the sixties – The Great Escape continually springs to mind.
The rescue of the artifacts and the oil masterpieces is a remarkable tale, and there are moments in the film where you can’t help but share the joy of discovery along with the seven men as they uncover the great works, often by accident. The film successfully conveys that sense of elation the men experience as a Da Vinci or a Rembrandt is revealed, buried under a dirty canvass or used as a makeshift table top, hidden in mountainous salt mines. But often those inspiring moments of joy come at the cost of slack pacing which continually slows events down, and even worse, occasionally drags. Plus, considering these men are not soldiers and possess neither the training nor the survival instincts of the military, the danger they continually put themselves into in the middle of a war zone should have us constantly on the edge of our seats, biting our nails, yet the film only occasionally excites.
But even though that sense of adventurous danger is often diluted, director Clooney still manages to balance moments of good humor along with poignancy – the men silently listening to a recording of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is particularly effective – and even horror. When Matt Damon discovers a warehouse full of dusty stockpiled, household furniture and paintings, he asks French art historian and member of the French Resistance, Rose Valland (an excellent Cate Blanchett) what they’re looking at. “People’s lives,” Rose tells him. “What people?” he asks looking around at the cavernous emptiness. “Jews,” she replies. And later, when he finds a huge barrel of pure gold nuggets hidden by the Nazis in a mine, the excitement of discovering such riches is suddenly diminished upon the realization that what they’ve found are actually fillings from human teeth.
Clooney, Damon and Blanchett are supported by a good cast. It’s fun to see John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Britain’s Hugh Bonneville and French actor Jean Dujardin rib on each other and stumble across the battlefields of Europe, often unaware of the dangers of their surroundings. Some will make it, a couple will not, and even though the film only occasionally stirs when it should thrill, it is still a mission worth taking. And the fact that it’s true should make us all appreciate viewing those great works still on display in museums all over Europe all the more.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 112 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)
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David Appleford is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society and the American Theatre Critics Association
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