‘Monuments Men’ overall fascinating

Published 11:02 am Wednesday, March 5, 2014

by Chuck Lilley

By most artistic standards, “The Monuments Men” falls short of great movie-making. Despite less-than-stellar critical reviews, a broad range of audiences (the film has a PG-13 rating) will discover the film to be entertaining and representative of important history. Director/co-producer/co-screenwriter George Clooney (“Gravity,” “The Descendants,” “Argo”) and co-writer Grant Heslov (“Good Night and Good Luck,” “The Ides of March”) once again collaborate to reveal a little-known and improbable chapter of World War II – how thousands of masterpieces of European art, such as the “Mona Lisa,” the “Madonna of Bruges,” the “Ghent Altarpiece,” were recovered from Adolph Hitler’s murderous Nazi war machine.

Enter Clooney’s character, Harvard art professor (soon to become a U.S. lieutenant) Frank Stokes, who poses to President Franklin Roosevelt the rhetorical question, “Is art worth a life?” Fortunately for post-World War II generations who today frequent museums throughout the world, Stokes convinces Roosevelt and other Allied leaders that a limited effort should be made to find and retrieve the priceless plunder during the final years of the war.

Stokes and a small band of middle-aged colleagues put professional careers on hold, enlist and return the confiscated masterpieces to their rightful owners. With little financial resources and scant military support, the “monument men” must continually improvise to extricate from harm’s way and outrace the Russian army for the stolen treasure. Throughout the perilous journey, screenplay writer Clooney displays a deft touch in utilizing timely, light-hearted banter among his characters. The entertaining humor is welcomed contrast to the on-screen reminders of the Nazi atrocities (a barrel of gold-filled teeth).

The international, well-known cast reflects real-life Allied counterparts. Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban provide American faces. Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) British, and former Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) French. The anomaly is Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who plays a French heroine, Claire Simone. All provide serviceable performances and were likely selected for box office appeal. Lesser-known actors arguably could have provided more credible impact to this previously obscure story.

Many of the film’s spectacular outdoor scenes are filmed around the Berlin-Brandenburg region of Germany and within the German town of Osterwieck in the Harz District.

Additional scenes are shot at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, England. Despite the spectacular vistas, the film’s numerous camera jumps between the small, divided search and rescue Monument Men teams detract from a coherent plot flow. The plot is much more cohesive during moments where the collective teams are improvising next steps.

Despite the minor structural criticisms, “The Monuments Men” is a fascinating telling of an actual story. Co-writers Clooney and Heslov adapt their screenplay from author Robert Edsel’s non-fictional 2009 best-selling book, “The Monuments Men, Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” and from Edsel’s 1994 documentary, “The Rape of Europa” (currently available through Netflix).

Both screen-writers can be excused for the artistic liberties that are taken with their plot and characters. To quote Clooney, “Our job is to keep the story interesting and not sell out what these men actually did.” Background knowledge of the film’s principal character, Frank Stokes who is based on the real-life George Stout, bears Clooney out. Prior to the creation of the Monuments Men in 1944, Stout frequently traveled alone throughout Belgium, France and Germany in a Volkswagen retrieving the stolen artworks.

Western Civilization in particular owes an incalculable debt of gratitude to George Stout and his brave colleagues. A special thanks should extend to Clooney, Heslov and author Edsel for raising awareness to the selfless actions of the Monuments Men.

Monuments Men is currently playing at most Hampton Roads area theaters and has a run-time of 118 minutes.