world war ii: monuments men

Return of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Lady with ermine” to Poland after World War II.

Monuments Man Lt. Frank P. Albright, Polish Liaison Officer Maj. Karol Estreicher, Monuments Man Capt. Everett Parker Lesley, and Pfc. Joe D. Espinosa, guard with the 34th Field Artillery Battalion, pose with Leonard da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine upon its return to Poland in April 1946.

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Film critic David Edelstein reviews The Monuments Men, a film co-written and directed by George Clooney.  After the Nazis stole art during WWII there was a team responsible for finding it and protecting it–everything from the Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s David Edelstein says:

“The Monuments Men comes off as more of a, well, monument than a vital work of art. It’s engaging, but a little blah, a little formulaic. It begins with a round-up-the-team sequence that’s only charming because of who the actors are. Matt Damon is plucked from a ladder as he works on a church ceiling and architect Bill Murray from leading a skyscraper tour. Alcoholic curator Hugh Bonneville gets offered a chance to come back from disgrace and redeem himself, heart-warmingly. Jean Dujardin of The Artist is a Frenchman who’s there because he knows the territory. Bob Balaban is the ultra-serious specialist who trades witless insults with Murray. It’s an all-star cast in which the stars are all low-wattage.”

images via collider and MFA Boston

THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

Among the many, many unsung heroes of World War II were the Monuments Men, a group of men and women of the allied forces who joined together to protect, restore and return art that was stolen by the Nazis during their occupation of Europe. George Clooney plays Frank Stokes, the Danny Ocean to this art buff version of Ocean’s Eleven. Stokes puts together the team that will infiltrate certain historical monuments with the mission of protecting precious works of art from bombardment, as well as recovering ones that were seized by the Nazis.

It’s a compelling story. Most of what we’ve heard of World War II is related to the atrocities committed during the war, from stories of Auschwitz to The Diary of Anne Frank. The Monuments Men makes the case that there was another war being fought during this time - a war for the preservation of culture and a way of life. Clooney’s Stokes says that people’s lives reside within these canvases, sculptures, books, frames, and so they are worth protecting just as much as every man, woman and child. It’s a sentiment that will certainly be shared by anyone who has seen some of these historic paintings and marveled at the stories they tell. When one looks at Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” or Michelangelo’s David, culture emanates from these pieces, and they aren’t just 17th century paintings or historic sculptures.     

I personally love these types of stories. I’m a big fan of historical fiction, so the story of a group of art buffs wading into war in defense of precious artwork is like music to my ears. The film makes a very good case for the cultural significance of art, even going so far as to plead with audiences of today to continue appreciating these works because they are, in a way, survivors as well. As far as historical accuracy, the names of the Monuments Men have been changed, and there are of course the usual Hollywood embellishments to cater to the thrill-seeking audience, but for the most part the spirit of the group was alive in the film. I was a little dismayed that the Allied military was portrayed as largely uncaring about the endeavors of the Monuments Men, when truth be told it was certainly a concerted effort by many involved in the war to ensure that historical monuments were not destroyed during sieges. However, for the purposes of tension and giving the sense that this group was somewhat isolated in what was portrayed as a seemingly trivial mission, I understand why this was the case. 

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While The Monuments Men benefited greatly from its star-studded ensemble - from George Clooney (who co-wrote, directed and starred in the film) to Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett to Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin - as a whole I would say it was mostly straightforward, inoffensive fare. Cate Blanchett, in my opinion, is one of those rare actresses who can morph into any role near flawlessly. Her Claire Simone was funny, strong-willed and seemingly undaunted, despite the ruin that she witnesses everyday as an unwilling French assistant to one of the Nazi captains during the occupation of Paris. Another cast member who never ceases to amaze is the criminally underrated Bob Balaban, who I guarantee you is in damn near every film but who always seems to be forgotten when bigger name celebrities surface on screen. It’s safe to say most of the cast did a passable job, but I couldn’t help but get the sense that everyone else other than Cate Blanchett and Bob Balaban sort of phoned it in.

One of the things that surprised me about the film was in how it threw in sentimental scenes in what I thought were inopportune moments. There were scenes that could have used that oomph of emotion, but instead missed the opportunity. And the scenes that were sentimental, in an attempt to remind viewers that these charming, endearing men and women were still embroiled in a grim war, were done in a manner that seemed to me slightly mawkish. I also found the ending rather abrupt and a little unsatisfying. 

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While I did appreciate the vintage aesthetic that cinematographer Phedon Papamichael brought to the film, I was surprised at how, for the most part, it was shot in a very understated, ho-hum kind of way. For a film that celebrates art, I kinda wished I had seen more of it. There was, however, an abundance of humorous moments (maybe a little too many), and I appreciated the running gag of the French disdain for Americans who, in their attempt to parler Français, completely butchered the language. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov seemed to be going for a more comedic route with this film - a dramedy of sorts, with the premise of an unlikely group of soldiers with a unique mission. While this formula certainly worked, I felt that it sometimes chipped away at the noble efforts of these men and women. 

Overall, art aficionados or fans of historical fiction will probably find the film enjoyable, however some (including yours truly) may find it, as a whole, rather mediocre. There was a lack of depth in the whole endeavor that minimized the heroic deeds of the characters, even though the film was pretty self-aware of the importance of these people’s roles. While not something to write home about, and not something you have to see on the big screen, The Monuments Men is an entertaining enough affair with a good message. The film opens this Friday in US theaters.