Monday, February 24, 2014

The Monuments Men / *** (PG-13)

Frank Stokes: George Clooney
James Granger: Matt Damon
Richard Campbell: Bill Murray
Claire Simone: Cate Blanchett
Walter Garfield: John Goodman
Jean Claude Clermont: Jean Dujardin
Donald Jeffries: Hugh Bonneville
Preston Savitz: Bob Balaban
Sam Epstein: Dimitri Leonidas

Columbia Pictures and Fox 2000 Pictures presents a film directed by George Clooney. Written by Clooney & Grant Heslov. Based on the book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter. Running time: 118 min. Rated PG-13 (for some images of war violence and historical smoking).

I’ve long had a fascination with World War II based movies. I was never much of a history buff, but when it comes to WWII on film, I can’t get enough. It’s hard to come by new stories of that war, since it was so heavily mined by Hollywood over the years. Somehow, I’d never heard of the Monuments Men though. In this movie that’s what they refer to themselves as, a unit of the Army made up of art scholars and architects who were tasked with the job of finding and identifying the great amounts of artwork stolen by the Nazis throughout the war.

George Clooney leads the cast—along with his directing and writing duties—as Frank Stokes, who convinces the U.S. President that the threat to the great art resources of Europe is a great risk even with victory in the war. He is commissioned to put together a group of experts, who will go through Basic Training and join the troops in Europe in an effort to save as much fine artwork as they can and return it to its rightful owners.

Matt Damon is James Granger, whose “fluent French” isn’t all that impressive to the French but does gets him sent to Paris to find a starting point with Claire Simone. Played by Cate Blanchett, Simone is thought to be a Nazi collaborator, but actually worked as part of the French Resistance and has valuable information about where the Germans might’ve taken much of the artwork. She doesn’t trust that the Americans’ intentions for the art are as pure as they say. The Russians are known to have a similar task force working to steal the art that the Germans stole as reparations for the great number of casualties suffered in the war.

Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville, “Downton Abbey”) is a Brit on the team sent to Bruges to protect Michelangelo’s Madonna statue. Richard Campbell and Preston Savitz, memorably played by Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, are sent to Ghent to find the Van Eyck altarpiece, one of the most important pieces looted by the Germans. Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and a Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) are sent deep into the German territory to discover where large caches of the artwork might be hidden.

This is one of those ensemble movies where much of the groundwork is laid in the casting and Clooney dug deep to get just the right cast for the task. It’s a pleasure to see such great character actors working together. Dujardin may not be that recognizable to U.S. audiences, but he uses that same expressive nature that he brought to his Oscar winning performance in “The Artist” to fill in for the passion of all of France about the importance of their mission. John Goodman is just a natural acting master. And it seems every time I see Bill Murray in a movie these days there is never enough of him.

The cast is so very important, because in order to fit in all these characters and the background of their mission, there isn’t much time for character development. The actors do all the work here, and it works. But like the light handed character development, the script does seem a little lacking in the timeline context of just where in the war we are as these men perform their duty. From the opening moments it is mentioned that the war is winding down. The Allied victory is imminent, but there’s very little sense of just how quickly time is passing. I’m not sure how urgent the real Monument Men’s mission really was, but here they’re working against the clock with both the Germans, who’ve been ordered by Hitler to destroy everything, and the Russians, who are bent on taking everything they can.

In fact the entire production seems somewhat muted in terms of urgency. Clooney’s pacing is often on the slower side, but like his film about the early days of professional football “Leathernecks”, the pace almost works against the material here. I believe more historical context could’ve been used to fix both problems by depicting some of the Allied movements and battles that were happening once the Germans were on the run. I understand that these men weren’t involved in those, but I think the added context could’ve kept the adrenaline up for this old timers unit.

Despite these drawbacks, the movie is finely made by Clooney and his crew. The veteran actors are able to bring a good amount of humor to the proceedings. It’s an enjoyable film to watch because of the cast. It also fills in a hole of history that has been left out of the cinematic depiction of WWII. It’s interesting, and the production design is impeccable. It won’t go down as one of the classic war films of all time, but its historical significance makes for an excellent excuse to bring together these great actors in a war story.

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