Sunday, February 9, 2014

NOW SHOWING: The Monuments Men (2014)

                “The Monuments Men” is a movie about the previously little known MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) program.  This unit was created by the Roosevelt Administration to protect and recover art works in WWII Europe.  The film was directed by George Clooney and is based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel.  It was filmed mainly in Germany.  The movie begins with the classic “based on a true story” claim. 

                The story starts with a prologue that establishes that the Nazis (in particular Hermann Goering) are looting art throughout occupied Europe.  The unit is the brainchild of an art conservationist named Frank Stokes (Clooney).  One selling point in his slide presentation to FDR  is a reference to what happened to the monastery at Monte Cassino.  Stokes recruits several colleagues (none of whom is reluctant to risk his life in what is clearly going to be a dangerous mission).  The recruitment is done without dialogue which is a nice touch, but negates much character development.  In a foreshadowing of the level of humor, one of the men gets a physical while smoking a cigarette and the doctor is smoking (and hacking), too.  The obligatory training sequence is mercifully short and inserted solely to establish that the guys can kill Nazis if necessary.  And they get to dress like soldiers.

"I'm putting together a unit and I need one hunk
for any romance breaks out"
                In his briefing of the six other unit members, Stokes points out that Hitler is looting art for his planned Fuhrer Museum in his home town.  In July, 1944 they land in Normandy and meet immediate resistance from the military.  It seems the Army is more interested in blowing things up than preserving art.  The idea of protecting sites is immediately nixed, but it’s okay for them to roam the front lines (and beyond) sans escort.  In particular, they are hunting the Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s statue “Madonna With Child”.  Along with these two subplots, Granger (Matt Damon) is sent to make contact with a French art historian named Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who works in a Paris museum which is the main conduit for French art being sent to Germany.  Claire is reluctant to confide in Granger because she suspects the U.S. of wanting the art for itself.  “How can I help you steal our stolen art?”  She is feisty and skeptical, but Granger is Matt Damon – you do the math. 

                The movie’s middle third is divided between the quests by segments of the unit.  Each is a little mini-war movie.  Campbell (Bill Murray) and Savitz (Bob Balaban) are tasked with the Ghent Altarpiece. Their relationship has the earmarks of a buddy film.  Garfield (John Goodman) and Clermont (Jean Dujardin) are sent out to get shot at.  The action scenes.  Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) goes after the Madonna in Bruges.  The behind the lines scene.  Meanwhile, Stokes and his German interpreter Pvt. Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas) supervise and put leads together.  The detective story.  They discover that the Germans are hiding the art in various mines.  Oh, and the romance between Claire and Granger.  There’s something for everyone!

will these two art loving foes form a bond?  have you
never seen a buddy film?
                The last third deals with the mines as the crew is reunited.  Two races ramp up the suspense.  First, there is the Nero Decree which states that in the event of Hitler’s death, the Nazis are to destroy all the looted art.  Second, the Soviet Trophy Brigade is looting the looted art as reparation for all the damage done to the Soviet Union during the war.  This movie manages to have evil Nazis and Communist bastards.  In fact, the final set piece is a race to the last mine (and the Madonna) that, with the aid of clock-ticking music, has the audience on the edge of its seat as it frets over who will get possession of a statue.  Don’t watch this movie if you have heart problems!  (Which based on the age of my audience…)  The movie closes with a head-scratching cribbing from “Saving Private Ryan”.  This includes the “was it worth it?” query.

                This ain’t “Inglorious Basterds”.  It is more of a throwback to Old School war movies.  There is no cursing nor graphic wounds.  One main character stays loyal to his wife when tempted by an exotic mademoiselle.  The movie even manages to incorporate a Christmas song.  (Perhaps because the film was originally supposed to be a December release.)  The humor is far from cutting edge.  It is smile-worthy with some eye-rollers.  Even Murray’s character is subtle in this respect.  Fortunately, there are no unintentionally funny moments, although some of the plot enhancements are silly to anyone who is big on reality or does not like huge coincidences.  I’m talking about you - “mine scene”.
We were soldiers, too!
                The movie will probably be popular because of the cast.  Clooney chose well when he assembled his Oceans Seven.  They are all comfortably familiar actors.  It is hard to alienate an audience when you have Damon, Murray, and Goodman in your cast.  Kudos to Clooney for not dominating in his own movie.  The acting is fine, if unspectacular.  Clooney’s direction is workmanlike.  The cinematography features some off centered shots and multi-leveled compositions, but you won’t leave the theater marveling at what you have seen.  Clooney managed to round up enough period vehicles to give the movie a WWII war movie vibe.  There is little combat so the jury is out on his ability to stage war action.  In fact, the one brief fire fight is marred by an egregious disregard for common sense tactics by American soldiers.  There is also a sniper scene that is only saved from ridiculousness by the twist of who the German sniper turns out to be.

                The movie eschews cliches for the most part.  There is no command dysfunction and little conflict within the group, although we do get the trope of the authorities being uncooperative.  The unit is not heterogeneous.  You do get a redemption arc for Jeffries.  There is also something of a suicide mission, who will survive? feel to the plot.  Naturally, the script throws in the Jewish interpreter and Holocaust references like a cache of gold fillings.  We get two evil Nazis! One who inexplicably decides shooting at Clare with a luger from 50 yards is preferable to a firing squad for a French Resistance rat.  The other is the heinous heinie who kills one of the seven.  Hiss!   They keep popping up as those types tend to. 
Will Claire ever warm to James?  Have you never seen
a romance movie?

                “The Monuments Men” is what I sometimes call a WTF/WTF war movie.  This means it has scenes where you shake your head at what has to be complete crap and then you find out some of those scenes were actually accurate.  This film is a mixed bag and based on preliminary research I would have to say it is average for a “based on a true story” movie.  The Monuments Men unit did exist and was created to rescue as well as protect art.  However, it consisted of 350 men and women from 13 different countries.  The individuals did come from various art-related occupations and they did go through military training.  All the main characters but Clermont are based on real people, although the names have been changed.  Stokes is George Stout who was an art conservationist who played a main role in the creation of the MFAA and was one of the first to land in Normandy.  The other members never worked as a unit or even in pairs, as the movie depicts.  Claire was Rene Vallard and she is pretty accurately portrayed, including her reluctance to help the MFAA.  I seriously doubt the romance subplot is authentic.  The unit did learn about a cache from a dentist whose son-in-law was a former S.S. officer.  He did not have stolen art decorating his abode.  The Nero Decree was for real, but was never implemented.  No flamethrowers.  Hitler was planning on an art museum in his home town.  One of the mines did contain a huge quantity of gold that drew more press than the art recovery efforts.  As far as the deaths, one actual member was killed by a shell while moving an altarpiece.  The staging of both deaths is pure crap, but at least the movie does not have the men actively involved in combat.  For more details, wait for my upcoming “History or Hollywood” post.

It is hard for me to be too harsh with “The Monuments Men”.  It falls into my most valuable category of war movies – those that bring light to a little known, but deserving individual, unit, or event.  This category includes some great movies like “Glory”, but most are misfires like “Red Tails”.  Unfortunately, if the producer botches the effort, there is little chance for a redo.  (“Red Tails” being particularly disappointing as the rare second attempt after “Tuskegee Airmen” came up short.)  I think it’s safe to say there will no future films highlighting the MFAA.  “The Monuments Men” falls midway between “Glory” and “Windtalkers” (the two extremes) in quality.  If you want to watch a much superior movie on this subject, watch “The Train”.  And then remember that before there was George Clooney, there was Burt Lancaster.  Progress?

Grade =  C


  1. Great post. I've added your blog to my favorites banner.
    I hope you don't mind a few corrections or add ons. I just read the book a few weeks before the movie came out.
    Her name was Rose Valland (not Renée). The first MFAA officer to arrive in Normandy was Ettlinger, not Stokes. The dentist's nephew was the infamous nazi from the Jeu de Paume as depicted but he tripped himself up by offewring to help the officers to retrieve the art in exchange for immunity. He was soon unmasked and later served a prison sentence. I believe Stokes was the one who recieved a phonograph record which he waited until Christmas to listen to. I do not believe any of the Monuments Men were over 45 or 50. Goodman, Murray and Balaban are way off in terms of age. However it was interesting casting for comedic effect. In fact most of the men were already in the arrmy before they were even recruited into the unit. Stokes, for example was working on paint camouflage schemes in England and had all but given up on the idea when he was called up for this duty. Though he had come up with the idea he had a benefactor in the us whose political clout made it a reality. And in fact, at first in 1944 there were only 6 or 7 monuments men in the whole European theater of operations. A year or more later there were up to 350. I guess finding Hitler's cache of gold at Merkers brought home for the Commander In Chief how important their work truly was. In real life removing the works from the last mine was far more harrowing than shown in the movie. They had less than 24 hours to do it before the Russians were scheduled to take possession of that part of Germany (as per Malta agreement). They worked day and night wrapping, crating and cataloguing each work before loading them into trucks and flying them out.

    Glad to see I'm not the only one who didn't dislike this film. The reviews overall are unreasonably harsh in my view.

  2. Thanks. I plan on reading the book and doing a regular review in the future. This was part of my series called "Now Showing" which means I take notes in the theater and then rush the review out the same day which limits my research on accuracy. I appreciate the shout-out on your blog and will check your blog out.


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