Movies about World War II like The Monuments Men fell out of fashion a long time ago, thanks in no small part to efforts like Saving Private Ryan that chronicle battle’s true horrors, if not also a considerable amount of Greatest Generation posturing. But even with Spielberg’s masterpiece in his rear view mirror, director and star George Clooney successfully finds both humanity and humor in the story of a platoon enlisted to rescue art from the Nazis during the final days of the war.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, the leader of a small group of museum curators and art historians assembled by the U.S. government to join the front lines of the war in Europe and try to locate and retrieve some thousands of great works that were stolen by the Nazis. His team includes Americans James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and Brit Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville).
Granger is sent to Paris to work with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who is as mistrustful of her ingratiating new American ally as the Nazis whose spoils she carefully documented. But soon after Stokes dispatches the rest of the platoon to different locations to search for reserves where the art might be hidden, he learns that the end of the war may work at cross purposes with their mission – if the Germans surrender, they might simultaneously destroy the priceless artwork they’ve collected. With the clock ticking down until the end of the war and few leads, Stokes and his team scramble across war-torn Europe in an effort to save the continent’s history from being destroyed forever.
While there’s no disputing the significance of the artwork that these men helped rescue, the legacy of war movies in the last two decades has admittedly rendered stories like these – and predecessors such as The Great Escape – somewhat obsolete, if not sort of glib. And particularly given Clooney’s success as a roguish charmer in ensemble comedies like the Ocean’s movies, it would have been easy for him to craft one of his own with WWII as the backdrop. But co-writing the script with longtime partner Grant Heslov, Clooney creates a story that starts off acknowledging that sort of brisk wartime-adventure tradition, then deepens into something warmer and more meaningful.
Observing that the men in his platoon are sort of only barely soldiers – several thrown into basic training largely for comedic purposes – the script underscores their initial detachment as peripheral participants in this great and terrible conflict. From the crosses being built in the background for makeshift graves to the buckets of gold fillings stolen from teeth to the repeated refrain that some former owner of a piece of art they’re searching for was killed, they quickly become aware that death is all around them. And like them, the audience soon realizes that this story is far from a toss-off celebration of art, or as the poster’s tagline reads, “the greatest art heist in history,” but a touching portrait of men searching for symbols of existence – of excellence – while life is being indiscriminately extinguished around them.
Bonneville’s character enjoys a hero’s moment in the film that’s typically reserved for the climax or third act of a story like this, but its placement is symptomatic of Clooney and Heslov’s focus on the men and their lives, rather than the slick thrills of stealing art back from history’s greatest villains. Meanwhile, they pepper in other sequences of truly transcendent beauty — the best of which comes when Murray’s character hears a recording of his daughter singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” reverberating through a desolate, icy military encampment – that are deeply sensitive and profoundly affecting, without sacrificing light-touch humor that seems fully believable, and even essential to dealing with literal life or death situations.
Although Murray has comparatively little to do, the performances are consistently top-notch, especially Damon as the indefatigably patient soldier trying to prove his sincerity to Blanchett’s Claire, and Dujardin as a French soldier taking his chance to join a fight from which he was once rejected. Ironically, of course, the film would probably have worked almost as well, if perhaps more forgettably, if its stars simply played “themselves,” but the real work they commit to their roles elevates its impact, and underscores the earnestness and respect with which Clooney approaches his subject matter. But ultimately, The Monuments Men makes a welcome and superlative addition to the pantheon of war films, because it turns high-concept storytelling into a meaningful true-story tribute, drawing audiences in with monuments – the stars populating its A-list ensemble — and then truly making them care about the men whose very real efforts enabled their wattage to burn so brightly.
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