The Monuments Men – A George Clooney Retrospective

L-R: Walter Garfield (JOHN GOODMAN), James Granger (MATT DAMON), Richard Campbell (BILL MURRAY), and Frank Stokes (GEORGE CLOONEY) work to put weight on a "booby trap" that James Granger has stepped on in Columbia Pictures' THE MONUMENTS MEN. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

The Monuments Men sees George Clooney and company tasked with tracking down artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

After 2008’s Leatherheads, Clooney took a brief break from period films to write, direct and star in The Ides of March. After that, he went back to the past for another period piece. This time around, he gathered an ensemble cast to hunt stolen artwork in a film that is based on a true story. A National Geographic documentary about the real-life Monuments Men also aired in 2014. The film takes dramatic liberties with some of the events but Clooney told EW in 2013 that much of it is true.

“Listen, the good news is, 80 percent of the story is still completely true and accurate, and almost all of the scenes happened. Sometimes they happened with other characters, sometimes it happened in smaller dimension. But that’s moviemaking. We’re not killing Hitler in a movie theater. And I loved Inglourious Basterds. We’re landing at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. We’re not landing there when it was convenient for us to land there. We follow all the rules, we just made the characters more interesting, I think. Not that the real people weren’t interesting. It’s just that, you know, you’re not going to know if somebody had a drinking problem, and we kinda would like to have somebody with a drinking problem.”

In the Allied effort to defeat the Nazis, they would set up the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section Unit (MFAA) in 1943. The unit consisted of about 350 members from 13 countries with many were present on the front lines. Many people in the unit were art professionals. The film, like the book, depicts a small number of them–led by Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney)–in the efforts to return artwork to their rightful owners. Unfortunately, some of them do not make it back to their owners because the Nazis sent Jews to the camps. Lieutenant James Granger (Matt Damon) learns this all to well as he works alongside art curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). Simone was initially hesitant in working with the Americans, thinking they wanted it for themselves. She changes her mind after Granger hands her the Nero Decree.

Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) get a lead on locating Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. What they learn is that the priests removed it by they panels were taken before getting to a safe place. The later arrest of Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi) helps lead the Monuments Men in the right direction. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) dies of wounds sustained during a firefight. Unfortunately, Walter Garfield (John Goodman) is unable to find anyone that could help him.

It ultimately becomes a race against time to retrieve artwork from various mines and castle. The Soviets, it turns out, are taking the stolen art for themselves. There’s no universe where taking stolen artwork as reparations is okay. It did didn’t belong to the Nazis and I’m going to go out on a limb and say it didn’t belong to the Soviets either. While all this is going on, Col. Wegner (Holger Handtke) sees to it that a massive amount of artwork is destroyed. It’s not his to destroy, let alone even take in the first place. Anyway, the war comes to an end but there’s still one more race against the Soviets and it’s in a mine. Unfortunately, the entrance is blocked and there’s no way of getting in.

The Nazis were sending artwork to a number of places. It was up to the MFAA to stop this. They also advised the Allied bombers to not bomb anything with culturally importance. Efforts would last beyond the end of the war because we’re talking about millions upon of pieces of art and other cultural items. By that point, it was about 60 people participating. As Randy Schoenberg knows from personal experience in assisting Maria Altmann (as depicted in Woman in Gold), not all of the artwork made it back to their owners. Unfortunately, there are thousands upon thousands of stolen artwork that were still missing as of a decade ago. I’m seeing numbers ranging from 30-100,000 pieces. Will we ever find them or are they forever lost to history?

The final scenes serve as something of an epilogue to the film. Two men lost their lives in an effort to recover the artwork. President Harry S. Truman asks Lt. Stokes if Jeffries would say it was worth dying for a piece of art and his response was “I think he would.” Truman then asks if it anyone would remember that men died for a piece of art. To which an elder Stokes (Nick Clooney)–admiring Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna with his grandson–simply responds, “Yeah.”

Behind the camera, I love what cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and composer Alexandre Desplat bring to the film. The film marked the second collaboration between Clooney and Papamichael after the gloriously shot The Ides of March. Desplat also worked on the 2011 political thriller. Papamichael has a way with the camera and it’s absolutely stunning in this film.

This film gives Clooney one of his biggest parts in a film he directs. It makes it a bigger challenge when directing because he’s in front of the camera rather than watching from the monitor. His acting background does make him a better director with regards to getting the performances out of the actors. Through 2014, this is his biggest film by far in terms of scale and budget. For one, the film requires having to recreate World War II. It’s not an easy feat at all and beyond that, Clooney already knows how he’s going to edit so he’s cutting in his head while filming a scene. Every filmmaker has their own approach but Clooney’s style means not having more coverage than necessary.

The film was not well received upon its release despite Clooney assembling a star-studded cast. I think it’s fair to say that this is partly due to the humor in the film. There are a number of comic actors in the cast but war films should play more to the serious side. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be any comic relief. Such relief is even present here and there in Saving Private Ryan. Regardless, during times of war, comedy is necessary for survival. It’s just basic human instinct. But again, where does one draw the line in the sand when it comes to tone? Between working on tone and visual effects, it was moved out of awards season in 2013.

Looking back ten years later, is a theatrical feature the right venue for telling the story? I’m not sure. There are too many players and it kind of makes it hard to keep up with everyone especially with all of the subplots. It’s possible that a different take might be as a limited series and focus on the different efforts in each episode. It would allow audiences to see their efforts with a better focus. We already know that Ben Affleck feels that the Oscar-winning Argo would be made as a limited series today. I do think a limited series could give storytelling a chance to play things closer to authenticity, maybe even using real names instead of fictional ones. It might even allow the storytellers to expand beyond this group and follow other groups searching for art.

The Monuments Men puts the spotlight on a group of heroes tasked with saving stolen art but the film’s mixed tone prevents it from being a better film.

DIRECTOR: George Clooney
SCREENWRITERS: George Clooney & Grant Heslov
CAST: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, and Cate Blanchett

Sony Pictures released The Monuments Men in theaters on February 7, 2014. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.