The Monuments Men
It’s really kind of an amazing story: a squad of American, British, and French art experts assemble during World War II with the purpose of protecting and recapturing historic and important buildings and works of art undamaged. Hitler ordered the collection of millions of works of art from lands overrun by German troops — a large portion stolen after their Jewish owners were sent to concentration camps — with the goal of building an enormous museum to his own ego. He further ordered it all to be destroyed along with more mundane records if he should die or Germany should fall, turning the preservationists’ efforts into a race against time.
So, take that great story, throw in an all-star cast, and it’s hard to imagine how The Monuments Men could have been a bigger disappointment. Written, directed, and produced by George Clooney and his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, the film is a sprawling mess with no coherent through-line to follow from beginning to end. It’s a pile of snapshots, stuck together with some truly syrupy monologues.
It also plays way too fast and loose with the facts. I can understand some fabrication in the name of adaptation, but to watch this movie you’d think that the team only ever consisted of these eight guys, when the real Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program had about four hundred members. And that’s just the beginning.
The original plea to Franklin Roosevelt came from Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; in the film, that comes from Frank Stokes (Clooney), largely based on George Stout, conservator at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. He then recruits James Granger (Matt Damon), based on James Rorimer, curator at the Met, saying he makes seven. Then they both go recruit the other five that Stokes already said he had: architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), ballet director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), painter Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), an old British friend of Stokes’ whose alcoholism is meant to provide a poignant turn later.
The group all cross the English Channel to Normandy where they pick up a young driver and translator (Dimitri Leonidas). All, that is, except Granger, who sneaks into Paris to meet up with a friend of his who curates the National Collection. Or at least he’s sent to sneak in, but Paris falls to the allies before he arrives. The whole timeline is sort of confusing, and not really anchored in any real way to the progress of the rest of the war. Anyway, he ends up trying to get information out of accused Nazi collaborator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) — actually Rose Valland — who in turn accuses his team of trophy hunting like the Russians are doing on the Eastern front, which sets up an underdeveloped race at the climax. But rest assured that she will eventually come around, help the effort, and offer herself to Granger if he’ll have her. Trophy hunting, indeed.
The rest of the team splits up to chase one piece of art or another through a series of largely disconnected vignettes. We also get plenty of regular military commanders who don’t understand their mission and refuse to change course to assist. This despite the repeated orders issued by no less than General Eisenhower to do just that. Oh, yeah. The film also leaves out the whole fact that this wasn’t some rag-tag group scurrying about under the real soldiers’ feet, but rather was regarded by the highest echelons of Allied command to be carrying out some of the most important work of the entire war.
I understand that history has to be bent to fit into a movie frame, but what’s on the screen here is hardly recognizable from reality. I didn’t expect The Monuments Men to be a documentary — for that, we’ve got the far-superior The Rape of Europa — but I’d at least hoped we’d get a story held together by more than just high-minded idealism.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.