“Monuments Men,” an adaptation of Robert M. Edsel’s “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” is a primer in transforming the truly remarkable into the somewhat notable.
George Clooney, who directs and stars, co-wrote the screenplay with his producing partner, Grant Heslov. Together they imagine nine fictionalized characters composed of curators, restorers, archivists, architects, museum employees and translators, all undertaking an Allied effort to protect Europe’s cultural heritage. Clooney and Heslov fail to mention the group expanded to include several hundred men and women from 13 nations laboring to return stolen art between 1943 and 1951. To this day hundreds of thousands of works of art remain missing.
Brushing aside the historical inaccuracies, who wouldn’t want to enjoy a film documenting incredible heroism on behalf of all humankind? A cadre of affable, sympathetic actors embody these characters, but the script holds us at arm’s length.
Clooney, playing art historian Frank Stokes, wears a prize-worthy, salt-and-pepper professorial beard during his persuasive, unemotional presentation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the merits of preserving “the greatest historical achievements known to man.” As a result Stokes receives a presidential appointment to spearhead the “Monuments Men.” Stokes recruits a team of seven played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Dimitri Leonidas.
In a rare show of emotion, Stokes informs them, “No one really cares or even expects us to succeed.” Indeed, on several occasions, Allied military leadership refuses their pleas for help.
Ordinary men with a deep appreciation of art, the team splits up to skirt the front lines. Two team members are killed for their efforts, but, before we can appreciate the loss, the film rushes forward in search of the next “aha” moment. The only exception is Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), based on real-life French museum employee Rose Valland, who kept records of Nazi-pilfered artworks. While watching her country’s heritage be stolen, she loses family members and is eventually imprisoned by her own countrymen.
Trust is in short supply when Claire is approached by Metropolitan Curator James Granger (Matt Damon), tasked with learning what Claire knows. She’s wary, having read Russia’s proclamation it intends to keep all found artworks as war reparations.
As much as I’d like to say the story left a lump in my throat, the screenplay’s cold approach, lack of character development and its “good-old American know-how” mainly overlook the human factor.
The film is at its best when showing actual artworks, however briefly, or in depicting spectacular locations. We gasp at the sight of bombed-out European cities and cringe at the sight of booby-trapped underground caches. It is with awe that we survey mammoth Allied base camps, tour historical churches or look upon Germany’s glorious countryside. Seventy-one years later, such sights are a wonder to behold. There’s that awe and the small measure of pride we rightly claim for belonging to a nation that contributed so much to this monumental effort.