A more-or-less, based-on-a-true-story war film called “The Monuments Men,” released in 2014 (and playing in theaters now) tells the story of a group of art curators, architects, old book dealers and other art experts and their efforts to recover art stolen by the Nazis during World War 2. The film works better as an offbeat war movie than a revealing exploration of the men (and women) of the monument’s unit, which the Allies called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive Section of the Allies. Director, Producer and Star George Clooney justifiably cast extremely well-known actors who perform well in an ensemble piece that requires lots of background information relating to war, different countries, works of art and art history. The broad performances of these actors help keep the focus on their work and the art.
The movie begins with Clooney rounding up his cohorts for the trip to Europe, and we briefly meet the characters played by Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and others. Then they’re off to basic training, quipping with each other but in no way looking like soldiers with the ability to defend themselves properly in a war zone. Nevertheless, the Monuments Men press themselves into service immediately after their landing in France after the Normandy invasion to find and recover as much art as possible. Key art pieces highlighted in the movie include the Ghent Altarpiece (1432), also known as “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” by Jan Van Eyck, and Michelangelo’s Madonna sculpture taken from Bruges, Belgium. Their recovery efforts lead to a satisfactory climax in the film.
After arriving in Europe, the Monuments Men split up in pairs and go to different locales while the movie alternates between their scenes. Goodman’s character teams with Jean Dujardin, who gives a good performance as a French scholar, and the pair run into some harry situations in France. Their characters act like sadsack soldiers, which provides some comedy but seems incongruous given their actual professions. Balaban and Murray team up and provide some notable wisecracks based on Balaban’s rank as a lowly private.
A more heartfelt story in the movie concerns a French secretary working at the Jeu de Paume Gallery in Paris, Claire Simone (played by Cate Blanchett). The Nazis have already taken over and she’s pressed into cooperating with them in their efforts to steal the art. She’s surreptitiously working against the Nazis by chronicling their thefts in a secret notebook. Matt Damon’s character investigates her, but Claire thinks the Allies want to steal art too. A tender and well-played romantic interlude ensues between them, which culminates in a revelation that helps ensure a number of notable art recoveries.
I found The Monuments Men to be very entertaining. I’m sure the group portrayed in the film faced a number of dangerous situations, and a couple of the real Monuments Men died during the war. But sometimes they act too fearless in this film. At times, the film got too preachy about their mission, especially when Clooney’s character interrogates a Nazi officer and later when he trumpets his mission with a slide show to President Roosevelt. Clooney has to balance the war, the art, the mission and the message, and that ultimately proves to be too much in an otherwise very entertaining movie.