The Monuments Men

The intriguing thing about history is that there is always an untold story.  Against the backdrops of some of the most memorable historical events of our time lie fascinating subplots.  In times of war, for example – the prevailing story will understandably be one that focuses on human casualties.  The artistic or cultural loss of war may not be readily apparent, and most historical narratives don’t explore such considerations.  As a result, actor/director George Clooney (Gravity) found a unique opportunity to highlight a chapter of world history that was previously untold.

During World War II, Hitler instructed the Nazis to seize all works of art, including paintings, sculptures and other precious artifacts.  He supposedly had designs for a museum in his own honor and wanted to fill it with items he’d pilfered along the destructive path he carved through Europe.  In the event that Hitler was killed or captured, he instructed his troops to destroy the stolen art.  President Roosevelt recognized the value in preserving culture and authorized a commission to retrieve the items and return them to their rightful place.  Clooney stars as Lieutenant Frank Stokes, the man tasked with assembling the group that would be known as “The Monuments Men” for their willingness to sacrifice their own lives for the preservation of precious cultural monuments.

You might ask yourself, who cares about a painting when people are being killed? However, Stokes’ character conveys the purpose for The Monuments Men, answering the necessary question of whether or not a piece of art is worth a man’s life.  I’m paraphrasing the quote, but Stokes says that if you burn a man’s house down, he can come back.  But if you destroy his achievements and his history, it’s like he never existed.  That line struck me, and I think The Men’s sacrifice should be celebrated.

The commission is comprised of former military, all of whom have a unique knowledge of art either through study or creation.  Matt Damon (Elysium) co-stars as museum curator Lieutenant James Granger, while Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom) and John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis) are featured as Sergeants Richard Campbell and Walter Garfield, respectively.  The cast notably includes Cate Blanchett (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), and Jean Dujardin (The Wolf of Wall Street), with all of the characters filling unique roles that were integral to advancing the storyline.  At the helm both literally and artistically is Clooney, and the men he commands share his passion and commitment to the cause.

The Men contend with Nazi soldiers as well as resistance from Allied troops who don’t share their passion for art, at least not when weighed against the potential risk to American soldiers.  However, I never doubted the validity of their cause, and perhaps that is a testament to Clooney’s storytelling and direction, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the film is based on a book by authors Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.

The Monuments Men was a solid movie, and I found it well made and well acted.  However, it’s not the type of movie that drives foot traffic to the theater, though my show featured high attendance.  This is a quiet movie that you can see with your mom.  You’ll learn something, you’ll chuckle a few times, and you’ll probably be pleased overall.  But this is not the type of movie that will have you talking and telling your friends that they’ve “gotta see it.”  While it was enjoyable, I found myself ready for the credits to roll, despite some good performances and entertaining moments.  This is the kind of movie you’ll stumble across while flipping channels, and you’ll be glad that you did – but it was a bit too understated in its direction for me to give it a ringing endorsement.  Grade: B

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

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