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‘The Monuments Men’: It may not be art, but it’s entertaining
A 2.5-star review of the historical drama “The Monuments Men,” which takes an oddly breezy approach to an interesting bit of World War II history.
Seattle Times movie critic
‘The Monuments Men,’ with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett. Directed by Clooney, from a screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel with Brent Witter. 112 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking. Several theaters.
The version of World War II that we see in George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” never feels like a war; it feels like a movie — often a very entertaining one, but one that’s sometimes at odds with its subject matter. “Monuments Men” has a fascinating true story at its core: the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, established by the Allies to find and return works of art stolen by the Nazis. Mostly American or British art historians and museum curators, the Monuments Men, as they were called, were present on the front lines, helping to safeguard historical monuments. When the war ended, they went on a massive treasure hunt: ultimately saving millions of stolen works, many of them masterpieces.
Though in reality there were dozens of Monuments Men (and women), here we have just a few. Clooney plays Frank Stokes, who recruits museum director James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), French art dealer John Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), theater impresario Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and British professor Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) — as if he’s assembling a team for a heist. (In the early scenes, you can’t help remembering Clooney doing just that in “Ocean’s Eleven.”). Once the gang gets overseas, they split into smaller groups with specific missions; ultimately, with the help of French curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), the group begins to uncover treasure.
So yes, it’s a terrific story; the problem is the tone. Clooney (who co-wrote the film with Grant Heslov) gives it all a jaunty bounce and lots of comedy — again, like a light, sophisticated heist movie. Except that people were dying, in the camps and on the front lines, and though “Monuments Men” acknowledges this, it never really resonates. A few more rewrites might have helped solve other problems: too many subplots, an awkward sentimental streak (in particular, a scene in which Murray’s character receives a sweet message from home runs on far too long and goes nowhere), and too many rousing speeches silkily delivered by Clooney.
Nonetheless, “Monuments Men” is often irresistible, thanks to that delightful cast — could Clooney please recruit all of them for “Ocean’s 14”? Blanchett, as always, works miracles with her role (does anyone in cinema have more eloquent silences?); Damon has a funny running gag involving his bad French; and Murray and Balaban make a dream sidekick team. And the film leaves you wanting to know more about an important piece of history. (The 2008 documentary “The Rape of Europa” is a good place to start, as is Robert M. Edsel’s 2010 book “The Monuments Men.”) Art, we’re reminded, is “the story of our lives, painted on canvas or etched in stone”; it’s thrilling to hear, even in a flawed movie, of the efforts some brave men and women made to keep it alive.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org