I went into MONUMENTS MEN thinking it was going to be a pretty awful film. After all, it has a 33% rating on ROTTEN TOMATOES. I saw it at the critic’s screening here in Austin – and it seems most that were there seemed to really not enjoy the film, but Father Geek and I did.
Now Dad grew up in the aftermath of WWII, being born in 1945, and reading stories, watching WWII movies and hearing his father’s own tales and the stories about his friends’ fathers – all of whom served in WWII. I grew up watching WWII movies, as Dad loved them – and in my opinion, there will never be enough WWII stories and films that tell them. The board game that I was most addicted to in my teen years was called AXIS & ALLIES – and I played it with my father and his friends that constantly had WWII knowledge and documentaries that they played.
So – I’m a bit pre-disposed to love the genre. Now – in the particular sub-genre that MONUMENTS MEN plays in – we’re dealing with the treasures that the Nazis were making off with. My fave film in this sub-genre is THE TRAIN, made back in 1964. It was directed by John Frankenheimer and was about a Nazi played by Paul Scofield, who is loading up a train with loads of French Art Treasures – and the resistance launches an operation to stop the train and save their history! Burt Lancaster is great and the film is more of an action suspense film. If you want to actually explore the history behind MONUMENTS MEN, I highly suggest watching THE RAPE OF EUROPA – which is all about the plundering of Europe by the Nazis.
That said… MONUMENTS MEN is a different animal from THE TRAIN and from the documentary THE RAPE OF EUROPA. Interestingly enough, MONUMENTS MEN is based upon a book co-written by Robert M Edsel, who was a co-producer on THE RAPE OF EUROPA documentary. Clooney decided to make this a bit of a fish out of water tale. The men that made up the group were not SOLDIERS first and foremost, they were experts upon the field of art. They were older men, past their prime, but with the expertise to know what to save – and due to some decrees from Der Fuhrer – they were racing to recover the art lest it be destroyed per Adolph’s wishes.
First and foremost, I love this film for the cast. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban are all actors that I can never get enough of. This isn’t a ridiculous movie where these guys mow down a thousand Nazis and machine gun Hitler in the ass. This is a film about men willing to risk their life in the name of ART.
The film begins with a beautiful recreation of the horrific moment in WWII, where 3 of the 4 walls in the room that contained DaVinci’s THE LAST SUPPER were bombed out, and the populace is struggling to brace the wall, even as the attack continues. Frankly, I could’ve had an entire film about just that night and been in love. The glimpse of that horror – created a lust to learn more.
As the men make landfall at Normandy a day or two or three behind the fury we witnessed in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN… but as they go through the Allied lines, they witness the mass construction of white crosses to mark those that fell on that epic day. The team splits up to try and secure various masterpieces. Lord Grantham aka Hugh Bonneville heads off to secure Madonna of Bruges, which was sculpted by Michelangelo and was the only Michelangelo sculpture that left Italy in his lifetime. It is a piece that Hugh’s Donald Jeffries had seen before and hoped to keep in Bruges… It’s this first encounter that raises the stakes for all the Monuments Men.
Matt Damon’s Granger heads off to Paris via the French Resistance and meets Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone, who worked with the Nazis, so she could document and make note of what they were taking… She’s key to identifying and returning so much of the great artwork that was taken. I love the disdain she has for Granger and how as the U.S. made good on various treasures that they secured for various museums and individuals – she softens – and even becomes smitten with Granger. The sexual tension between them is something quite special and handled in a lovely manner.
My favorite duo of the film is that of Bill Murray’s Richard Campbell and Bob Balaban’s Preston Savitz. For one, just their personalities together – watching their faces, how they play off of each other – it’s great. And I love the scene where Bob play’s Murray’s record. Felt really magical.
Speaking of music, Alexandre Desplat’s score really engaged me. If you can groove to the rhythm and melody he plays with in the film, you’re likely to really dig the movie. Also, Desplat actually has a little cameo, for those of us that love Film Composers – it’s a rare Composer Cameo! FYI!
Clooney directs the film in a light fashion, making the film more fun, than gritty or terrifying. Although, I have to say, when you see Nazis flame throwing masterpieces that we can no longer appreciate… turned to ash… if that doesn’t resonate with you, well, you’re a different kind of person than me.
Often times we tally the cost of war on human lives lost. But that isn’t all that’s lost. After our latest engagement in Iraq, so much history and art was taken by unknown jackals of war. Within Clooney’s Directorial history, I’d rank this one below CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, but above LEATHERHEADS and THE IDES OF MARCH. It’s a solid entertaining WWII story that not everyone knows, but should. When you go through the Louvre next time, imagine all of it as ash. That is what was at stake in this film and period of history. Thank goodness for THE MONUMENTS MEN.