The Monuments Men (2014)
Directed by George Clooney
Based on Robert Edsel’s astonishing 2009 book about the real-life WWII soldiers who re-stole art from the Nazis and saved the cultural landscape of Europe, director George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” comes across as a watered-down retelling of one of history’s most incredible secrets.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, based on the real-life George Stout, a stoic art professor and collector who researched the artistic and cultural losses European countries were seeing as a result of worldwide war. He wanted to do something about it, so he gathered industry friends like James Rorimer (renamed James Granger and played by Matt Damon) and five other men (played by John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Bill Murray) to enlist and help him find the treasures stolen from independent Jewish art collectors and major museums and hidden by Nazis. Granger also receives help from Claire Simone (based on Rose Valland, played by Cate Blanchett), a humble woman who served as a spy while working closely with Nazi art thieves. But with the war’s end quickly approaching, the Monuments Men have more than axis powers to conquer – they also have to beat the clock.
The Monuments Men’s story is perfect for film. It’s just the unknown, historically accurate adventure tale that Hollywood loves. That’s the problem. Clooney, who also co-wrote the adapted script, plays the demon barber of Hollywood Blvd. by chopping and cutting and thinning this historically rich story and pandering to the least interested in the audience. The movie quickly explains complicated situations, and the dumbed-down script worries more about explaining the “boring” background information in as short of time as possible than about telling the whole story. Edsel’s book avoids retelling bloody scenes of battle, keeping to the intel-ops parts of the gripping treasure hunt that the reader cares about. Clooney’s flick has a different audience, and they want to see people getting shot. So Clooney indulges them with a gunfight that kills off one of the many characters not based on anyone in particular. It’s a reliably enjoyable movie about a treasure hunt in the midst of war, but “The Monuments Men” cares too much about being entertaining to present a fair representation of all that these men accomplished.
Any success this movie does see comes from the casting. George Clooney and Matt Damon are ideally cast as Stokes and Granger – from the time I started reading the book, knowing the cast of the movie already, I could see that Clooney and Damon would be the perfect fits for Stout and Rorimer. While they’re stuck working with material below their pay-grade, all of the stars do their best to make this story work. Bill Murray gets in a few good one-liners and John Goodman moves the plot along without much screen time. They’re a ragtag group of guys, but they’re mere caricatures of the men actually involved in the story. Besides Stokes and Granger, who are played by men similar in age and personality, the rest of the men (again, not modeled after anyone in particular – except for Bonneville’s character) play walking stereotypes – the short one, the old one, the fat one, and the French one. None are developed, so none are truly cared about by the audience. It’s a real bummer when a tragic scene of loss is undercut by the fact that you can’t remember the character’s name.
Besides being a big-budget sight-seeing tour of 1940s Europe, “The Monuments Men” fails to show the real feats accomplished by these brave men. I’m glad it finally gives credit where credit is due – but if you want the whole truth of what these men did, I recommend the book.