Sometimes out of the horror of war there are unusual and intriguing stories to be told. One of these is that of The Monuments Men, a group of civilians tasked with rescuing stolen art masterpieces and culturally important work from the Nazis and returning them to their rightful owners.
From the opening sequence we are informed that this is “based on a true story” and for all intents and purposes it is, though it should be taken with a grain or more likely a large chunk of salt. At its core this is a drama film, with dashings of adventure and comedy, so the truth in the story is definitely over-exaggerated to make for a more palatable watching experience.
We are introduced to our band of troops, who are most definitely not soldiers. Our assortment are all civilians, varying specialists in the art field. Our leader is Professor Frank Stokes (George Clooney), followed by his next best man James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell an esteemed architect (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and then we have Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), British Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) Preston Savitz (an endearing Bob Balaban) and occasional sneaky translator Sam Epstein (newcomer Dimitri Leonidas).
The only real female presence we have is in Claire Simone (masterfully done by Cate Blanchett) a curator and manager at the French National Museum. It’s an enormous ensemble cast to keep a handle on, so early into the film the characters are paired off and sent on different missions to track down particular artefacts. This does make it a lot easier to keep track and see our individual characters and their respective actors shine, but it also results in the film losing a little traction as we’re sent off in different directions. By far the standout pairing is between Campbell and Savitz with their dry wit and short-stature jokes, but the most intriguing and weird subplot is the chemistry between the guarded Simone and Granger who is doing his darndest to get her to cooperate, it just seems so awkward and out of place.
There’s quite a few issues that I have with this film, firstly the length, at nearly 2 hours long the film never seems to really rise or fall but rather just plateaus out. Honestly they could’ve shaved half an hour off this movie from overly long drawn out scenes of war torn landscapes or pieces of Clooney monologuing or just sped up the process of finding the antiquities and it wouldn’t be any worse for wear. The overall feel of the film never seems to push us too far in any one direction either, it just seems to sit in a nice emotionally safe zone. The comedy is never belly-laugh inducing but gets a solid chuckle, and the tension never reaches white knuckle shades to make you feel any real suspense. Clooney’s Stokes early into the piece says “Your lives are more important than a piece of art” but by the end of the film he’s recanting his statement, imploring that the culture is priceless makes it seem a little like double-standards
There are a few touching and poignant moments though. When Murray’s Campbell receives a care package containing a personalised vinyl recorded message from his grandkids which Balaban’s Savitz sneakily plays over the camps P.A system you may end up shedding a tear. Or the eerie scene where they find a barrel of gold fillings removed from people’s teeth, most likely remnants from a Nazi concentration camp. Or when Granger takes an unknown Jewish person’s painting back to their abandoned house despite the fact they will never return. The best thing about this film is the fact that it makes us realise the extent to which people will go to protect art, and its representations of society both for good and bad reasons. They are tangible expressions of beauty and culture and to lose them would be just as tragic as the loss of life going on in the war.
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 118 minutes
The Monuments Men is out now through 20th Century Fox