The Monuments Men (2014)

There are many stories waiting to be told, and many of the strangest come out of the various wars that have been fought throughout the centuries.  If it hasn't been drilled into everyone's heads over the years, especially by those who had to fight, war in many cases has little use other than mowing through a generation of young men and, these days, women.  Still, although many people would try to convince us otherwise, war is often the anomaly and not the constant.  

Being the anomaly it is, and especially in the 20th century when mobilization of forces never before seen became a possibility, it is no surprise that much of what happens beyond the major battles and who won or lost becomes a footnote in history.  Some of those footnotes take even stranger turns, especially when you consider that you are fighting an enemy driven by so many strange motivations as Adolf Hitler and the literal villains he surrounded himself with.  One of those motivations was to gather up all the great works of art in Europe to eventually be displayed in the Führermuseum, a giant art gallery meant to be built in his hometown of Linz, Austria. 

In order to counteract this, an international organization of a few hundred people called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, also known as the MFAA and nicknamed "The Monuments Men".  A book was written about their exploits by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, upon which George Clooney and cowriter Grant Heslov based the movie.  When I first saw it advertised, it struck me that this was an interesting concept that would make for a great movie, and I looked forward to seeing it - but then it came out at a time of the year that is a dire warning to movie viewers. 

The Monuments Men was supposed to come out toward the end of 2013, but Clooney hadn't finished with it.  Some visual effects weren't done, and he was concerned that the correct balance between pathos and humor hadn't been reached.  So, at his behest, the movie was held back.  Unfortunately, it came out in February 2014.  January, February and early March are the dumping grounds for movies that studios still want to take a chance on for theatrical release, but ultimately are sure will fail.  It's an attempt to get at least some money back and, occasionally, get a surprise hit.  It also is awards season, which gives studios a chance to make some extra money on movies that finally come to mainstream attention after they win an Oscar or two.  

As it turns out, The Monuments Men was a perfect fit for that time of the year. 

In 1943 a group of priests in Ghent, Belgium, attempt to rescue the Ghent Altarpiece from the Nazis.  They fail and, like a number of other vital pieces of art, falls into the hands of the Third Reich and is transported to unknown storage areas in Germany to await the end of the war and the opening of the Führermuseum.  This prompts Frank Stokes (George Clooney) to convince President Roosevelt to put together a group to rescue such works of art and try to convince the allied powers not to target historic sites.  

The group he puts together consists of art historian James Granger (Matt Damon), a former curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, architects Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Walter Garfield (John Goodman, disgraced art historian Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and art experts Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban).  Together they go on separate missions - Granger to find out what happened to most of the art in France, Jeffries to try to keep Michelangelos The Madonna of Bruges from being stolen and the others to go around trying to gather information.  Meanwhile, Stokes keeps tabs on them, as both success and tragedy occur.  Eventually, as the war comes to an end, it becomes a race for the MFAA to recover works of arts before they are destroyed by retreating German officers or fall into the hands of the USSR as spoils of war. 

Problem number one is that, of the hundreds of people involved in this organization in real life, none of the characters in the movie are them.  These people never existed, although there were pitched battles in order to get the Altarpiece of Ghent back, not from Germany, but from where it was hidden in Austria - and the history around that confrontation is more exciting that anything that happens throughout this movie. The closest we get to anyone from true history is Claire Simone (Cait Blanchett), who works for a French museum and seemingly collaborates with a German officer named Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi) to move artwork into Germany and into the personal collection of Hermann Göring (Udo Kroschwald).  Although also not a real person, she is based on Rose Valland, who secretly kept a diary with information on where the art was going. 

The ugly truth is that most movies "based on a true story" are about as accurate as your five-year-old nephew explaining a Transformers movie and getting it confused with a couple Godzilla films.  Still, most of them, although they are full of composite characters and often try to make the country they were made in look like the main player in the action, are making compromises in order to piece together a comprehensive narrative.  While something like Argo is loaded with falsehoods (and a complete dismissal of Canada's role in the events), at least it works as a movie, and is quite enjoyable if you don't try to pick it apart when it comes to accuracy.  The Monuments Men doesn't even have that going for it, feeling more like a bunch of unrelated scenes that Clooney filmed on the weekends in a forest retreat near one of his mansions.  He was able to actually get German locations in which to film, but he does nothing with them.  He also has gathered up a dream team of actors for an ensemble film, and throughout it's hard to care about them enough to remember most of their names, much less care about them within the narrative structure, of which there is little to none. 

Even more frustrating is that everyone, save George Clooney, is trying to do their best.  Even Bill Murray seems like he wants to be in the movie and is not just there collecting a paycheck; both as an actor and director, Clooney does little more than phone it in, sabotaging everyone else he roped into this film.  Instead, throughout the different little vignettes, he attempts to to pack emotional heft in a way that seems more like he's begging for an Oscar for this movie, and might at some point resort to cheeseburgers or other means to get what he wants.  Whatever extra time he took to try to tighten the movie up or make it what he wanted, or what he promised to anyone in it, fails miserably.  Of course, he also gives himself the big dramatic speeches throughout, none of which carry any more weight than anything else in the film.

There is definitely an interesting story behind the MFAA, and one I'm sure is told quite nicely in the book this is based on.  Going so far off the rails and still making a dull, unmemorable film is inexcusable.  Completely abandoning reality all together and making this some sort of Inglorious Basterds style action film with a bunch of misfits rescuing Rembrandts while slicing and dicing the SS would have been ludicrous, but it would have at least been entertaining.  

The Monuments Men (2014)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Cait Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville
Director: George Clooney


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