Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville
Directed by George Clooney
Produced by Grant Heslov and George Clooney
Screenplay by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter.
Director of Photography, Phedon Papamichael
Edited by Stephen Mirrione

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George Clooney’s World War II drama “The Monuments Men” manages to live up, and provide justice to, the very real true story that the film is based upon—a story not told before at this level in film—but some noticeable glitches in direction, storytelling, pacing and the script mar the film at several levels, thus preventing this good film from being the great film that it could have been.  Clooney, who plays the lead character, directs the film, co-produces the film and co-writes the screenplay, may simply have attempted too much in too many areas to tell an epic-sized story that cried out for epic-sized direction and writing.  Alas, that epic distinction is just not achieved, and this story deserved that level of direction and dialogue.  The film’s storytelling is jumbled and leapfrogging and scattered, going from here to there without smooth transitions, and the story is, at times, devoid of needed suspense and conflict, filled with beautiful moments that seem weirdly out of place in the context of the overall story, and confusing in terms of simple storytelling, movement, time and place, and basic narrative.

“Monuments” has one of those screenplays where the viewer knows and understands the basic story and premise—a group of art experts is charged by Allied governments (not just the U.S.) to save valuable artworks overseas toward the end of World War II–but the overall script tries to do too much, tries to go to too many places, and tries to cover too much ground in the allotted time and space and production.  In terms of confusing the viewer, the film recalls many similar far-reaching war, spy or historical films that jump from place to place in an attempt to present an epic presentation of an epic-oriented story set during epic times.  But in doing so—going to myriad places with numerous characters to tell various branches of a broad, far-reaching storytelling tree in two hours or so—the transitions, the script, the explanations, and the continuity have to be smoothly connected, have to make sense to the viewer, and have to be paced, timed and edited in a certain manner so the varying locations, characters, plots and sub-plots seem to easily connect, tie together and meld together into a cohesive storyline.  Yes, “Monuments” does eventually accomplish this on a simply basic, competent level—but, again, with jumps and cuts and movements and sudden transitions that are rough and tumble, jarring and apparently not easily tied together.

Along with Clooney’s seemingly all-over-the-place direction, the script’s problems itself also prevent the film from achieving greatness.  While the script is good—again, good, not great—and there are some simply memorable, intelligent lines of dialogue, everything remains safely safe, easy, compact, competent and quite traditional. There’s nothing wrong with any of that—these days, traditional is always welcome, productive and good–but the script, dialogue and scenes mostly don’t transcend the simply competent and traditional.  Most of the time, the script cries out for something just a bit more inventive, new, fresh and daring.  There are indeed several scenes that are beautifully staged and constructed, but they occur at odd times, there are not enough of them, and some even appear out of place.

However, these nits and picks and faults do not prevent the film from failing completely.  Clooney and his production crew started with choosing a great story that has seldom been told at this level, they did their research, they contacted the right technical consultants, they took the time to make sure the thousands of period details required in every scene were precise and true-to-form and not phony, they made sure to tell this great story in the needed, correct form of reverence and respect, they gathered a great, highly-watchable cast, and they made sure to strongly, clearly impart the essential meaning, theme and message of the tale, which, again, keeps the film honorable and worth noting. 

And that important message is the heart and soul—and driving force—of “The Monuments Men.” And that message is that, even amidst the most devastating times of heartless, soulless, horrifying and terrifying war, there are cultural, social, political and historical items worth saving on this planet.  Among those items are pieces of art.  That’s right, art.  Paintings, drawings, sculpture, glasswork, pottery, art on panels, art on walls, woodwork, you name it.  Art that exists not just for basic enjoyment, but art that transcends the ordinary, represents a society and its culture and history, and represents a greater beauty and magic among man that simply needs to be saved, preserved, cared for and protected for the past, the present, and for future generations. For when you destroy a society’s art and culture, you destroy that society’s place in time and history, in a sense.  There are hundreds of basic reasons that art—not just great art, but any art, really—should be preserved.  Art, as much as anything, represents history and culture and people and societies, and at the same time, art helps document, tell and explain those cultures’ and societies’ backgrounds, foundations, views, insights and stories.  Art is as essential a basic aspect of life as any other aspect of life. The only problem is the lack of understanding of art’s place in history and society by many people.

To its credit, this message and theme is prominent—and eloquently expressed, explained and examined—throughout “The Monuments Men.”

“Monument’s” incredible story—incredible because it’s true, and the true story sounds like a Hollywood conference room storyline pitch from a writer—tells the entertaining tale of seven art and architecture curators, historians, academics, experts, dealers and collectors gathered who were gathered by the Roosevelt administration to work together to go overseas, in the film mainly in France and Germany, to find, retain, preserve and protect untold pieces of valuable artwork that the psycho, unhinged Nazis looted, stole and hid away from the rest of the world—some to destroy if their enemies closed in.  Dubbed “The Monuments Men,” this group—aided in real life by hundreds of others from other Allied governments, but that’s not clear in the film—actually accomplished this daunting, seemingly-impossible feat:  They indeed saved millions of pieces of art scattered and stashed away by the insane Nazis.  That art, today, remains accessible and available to the world—and to history—because of the detailed, daring and thoroughly courageous, heroic work of these men.  They really did save valuable art from destruction by the Nazis, and in the process, they saved five millions stories that could have been lost forever.

Clooney and co-producer Grant Heslov knew they better get a top-notch cast to portray these real-life heroic men, and one of the major accomplishments of the film was assembling just such a top-flight cast—a colorful, varying, oddball tapestry of men—all of them far past normal draft-age years but all still able to project the presence needed for such a story and such a film.  Clooney plays the leader of the group—known officially as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives group—and, quite reminiscent—maybe too reminiscent—of Danny Ocean in his “Ocean’s Eleven” remake, he goes about assembling his monuments men.  The sequences where Ocean, er, Stokes, assembles the art-saving group are far too similar in style and execution to the same series of sequences in “Eleven,” and it could have been done differently.  Nevertheless, the crew is assembled, and Clooney and Heslov deserve credit for assembling such a colorful, diverse ensemble.

Clooney’s Frank Stokes—based on real-life art historian George Stout—is classy, respectable, honorable, to-the-point, eloquent, inspiring and, yes, dashing, it must be said, providing all the right ingredients that must be present in a true war hero based on, well, a true war hero.  Stokes finds a collection of, for the film, some quite entertaining and watchable art historians—nearly all energetically and enthusiastically portrayed by a dream-cast of, besides Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Bill Murray.  Add Cate Blanchett as a subtly sexy French Resistance secretary, based, again, on a real-life character who, quite simply, helped the group find much of the art, and you have a cast worth watching.  Blanchett continues to show her above-average acting skills, as she, in just a few scenes, slyly proceeds to steal the film out from under everyone else. Her subtle expressions, use of her eyes, use of her face and mannerisms rise to above-average, where, alas, the others are merely good, but not great.  Much as she has expertly done in several recent films, Blanchett displays acting in its purest sense, and she demonstrates why and how she has become one of the current generation’s top actors.

When the viewer watches Blanchett and then watches the actors portraying the monuments men, something appears to be missing from the men—the portrayals tend to be, again, very safe, very down-to-earth, very traditional. But not outstanding; there is, at times, nothing that raises the portrayals above the level of good. Perhaps this was intentional—perhaps Clooney told these outsized actors—outsized in a good way—to tone it down, bring it down, keep it level-headed, keep it Middle America, because that is precisely, in a way, what these men were in real life. They were not career soldiers, warriors or military tacticians. They were not leaders of hundreds or thousands or millions of men. They were not in the trenches. They were academics—that’s not a juvenile stereotype, just noting that these men were different types of men from the soldiers and military veterans who they were working alongside. It’s not stereotyping or generalizing, it’s just noting a different type of personality.

However, this was World War II, and no matter who you were or where you were or what you did, you wanted to join the fight. These seven art historians were happy to put on the uniform, strap a gun to their holster, hop in a plane and travel directly into the war zone—because they were patriots, they were fighting for a good cause, and they were fighting to save and preserve their passion, and a passion important for the world.  Thus, looking at their personalities from a real-life perspective, a down-to-earth mannerism would be appropriate. You don’t want them suddenly becoming Patton or Eisenhower firing rounds of machine-gun fire like Rambo. Of course not. But “Monuments” is a film, and perhaps increasing the intensity and energy of the men just a notch could have elevated the suspense and excitement to another level. Again, not to be outrageous, but to just increase the level of energy a notch or two.

Nevertheless, Clooney, Damon, Goodman, Balaban, Dujardin and Bonneville succeed in every scene that they are in.  Damon is a bit touching as a faithful, loyal married man who must combine getting valuable information from Blanchett’s character while also dealing with her obvious, enthusiastic crush—a most adult and respectable crush—on Damon’s character.  Goodman, who is 61 in real life and has a bad knee, carries himself well and honorable, and looks great in his military duds and helmet.  Actually, all of them, even Balaban, who is given a slightly ill-fitting uniform due to his small size, end up looking dashing in their war uniforms. How can you not look good in World War II uniforms?  Dujardin and Bonneville are especially heroic, yet, at the same time, again, subtly understated.  They get some of the best lines.  Balaban displays his quirky, patented blend of drama and comedy, and again shows his knack for portraying somewhat put-upon, sad-sack characters—although this particular character happens to be a war hero, a noted art expert and a respected academic.  The only weak point in the cast is Murray, who appears miscast and out-of-place from the start.  His heart is in the right place, as they say, but his presence seems to be in the wrong place.  Apparently told to tone down his personality, Murray tends to tone it down too much, so his characters underplays and understates his presence, even in what could have been one of the film’s most emotional scenes. As it is, the scene is still emotional (the details won’t be revealed here), but, once again, it’s simply good, not great. 

Together, due to their patriotism and dedication, these older men, in their military shirts, pants and helmets, end up meshing well with, and working with, their younger, more tightly-wound comrades—much as the real-life Monuments Men ended up doing in real-life. Everyone, from Roosevelt and Eisenhower on down to the most enthused, and innocent, private, seemed to come around to realizing that what the Monuments Men were doing was extremely important.

“Culture was at risk,” Clooney said in an interview with the studio for the film’s production press notes.  “You see it time and time again.  You saw it in Iraq–the museums weren’t protected, and you saw how much of their culture was lost because of that.”

“Even today, people are still trying to get back the art that was looted from their families by the Nazis,” Heslov says, noting that just recently, a treasure trove of looted art was discovered in a Munich apartment–1,500 works worth $1.5 billion, paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Dix, and other artists that had been thought to be lost, according to the studio.

“I think what that goes to show is that this is not a story that ended in 1945–the search for missing art goes on today,” Heslov continued in his studio interview.  “There are still thousands of works that are still lost.  There are paintings that are hanging in people’s homes or hidden in plain sight on the walls of museums.  Can you imagine if all of that had just been destroyed?  It would have been a catastrophe.”

And it would indeed have been a catastrophe. Fortunately, Clooney and Heslov also gathered a top-flight production crew to give credit to the intense level of the story. The cinematography is clear and well-lit where needed, dark and foreboding when needed, moodily lit at times, and constantly appropriately lit. The camerawork is fluid and assured, but it’s the direction that falters.  The rest of the production—the production design; the period clothes, cars, props, sets, guns, cigarettes (everyone smokes, because, accurately, everyone smoked back then), and, most noticeably, the art itself, are all expertly presented and beautifully rendered.  And the editing, thankfully, is not in your face, but quite down-to-earth and traditional.  Here is an area where more tradition and patience is needed in most big-budget Hollywood films today—editing.  Filmgoers simply don’t need to be smashed over the head and blown out of the theater with shaky, nauseating camerawork, far-too-quick-cut jump cuts, gory violence and screaming and yelling camera work and transitions to get a point across. The film is edited with patience, steadiness and assurance, which is welcome here.  And the sets—mid-twentieth-century homes and offices and battlefields and museums; crumbling towns devastated by bombs and fire; and various military and government offices, meeting rooms and conference rooms—are all expertly displayed.  The period details and the art details are exceptional.  And the musical soundtrack is appropriately military-inspired, nationalistic-inspired, and inspired by vintage, 1940s-era songs and music.

The acting, the production design, the story, the characters—these elements combine to make “The Monuments Men” a good film worth seeing, and a story worth knowing.

And along that line, in conjunction with the release of the film, the Smithsonian Institution is scheduled to display—for the first time–photographs, maps, correspondence and records, including the lists of art amassed by the Nazis, collected by the Monuments Men at the National Gallery of Art, an archives gallery at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center, and at the National Archives, according to The Associated Press.  Personal papers from Stout and other Monuments Men, including James Rorimer and Walker Hancock, were later acquired by the Archives of American Art and the National Gallery. Filmmakers consulted the archives in making the movie, including some of the records now displayed, said Kate Haw, director of the Smithsonian’s archive, reported the AP.  “The movie will make a great story, and then people can come learn the history by coming to us,” she said.  Also, a permanent “Monuments Men Experience” is being developed at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It’s scheduled to open in 2016, the AP said.  Examining the real records helps bring the story of the Monuments Men to life, Maygene Daniels, chief of the National Gallery’s archives, told the AP.

So the legacy of the Monuments Men lives on in real life, as it should, along with the film.

“This story opens up the Second World War in a way that gives you a different perspective on it,” said Blanchett in her studio interview.  Blanchett plays Claire Simone, who is based on real-life Rose Valland, who kept track of the Nazis’ art pillaging and helped the Allied recover thousands of pieces of priceless art.  “These men were spurred on by a higher ideal.  So many of the works that we take for granted in the great museums of the world were returned by this band of men–it was a near impossible task.  Absurd, in a way:  non military men going to the front lines and asking generals to stop bombing a certain church or area to save a window, or a sculpture or mural–you wonder how they were able to save anything at all.  It’s an extraordinary, selfless thing that they did, done to preserve history.”

Somewhere, there should be a monument to the Monuments Men.


John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.