By Jeffrey Huston, Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
At a time when historical war films are interpreted through a modern, kinetic lens, it's nice to see one come along that's been made like they used to – especially when it's set during World War II, precisely when they made them like they used to. That old-fashioned spirit brings style and charm to The Monuments Men, a highly entertaining and skilled throwback to another time (albeit with a PG-13 rating). It's a movie that feels like something right out of Hollywood's Golden Age.
Based on the true story of FDR's team of international soldiers and art experts, The Monuments Men is a dramatized account of the Allied efforts to rescue works of art – paintings, sculptures and the like from collections both public and private – throughout Europe. Their task was three-fold: find artworks before they're stolen by the Nazis, seize them from mines where Hitler had them stockpiled, or simply save them before they were bombed into oblivion along with so many cities across the continent. The stakes were no less than this: they sought to save Western culture and history.
Just as President Roosevelt assembled a multinational Who's Who battalion for the effort, so too does George Clooney (Oscar-winning producer of Argo) assemble an all-star cast like the old war movies he’s emulating. With an ensemble made up of leading men, Oscar winners, nominees, and beloved character actors, the multi-hyphenate filmmaker Clooney – who once again serves as star, producer, and co-writer of a film he also directs – marshals together the right mix of talent that creates a wonderful sense of camaraderie.
The plot follows a tried-and-true genre structure as Frank Stokes (Clooney) lays out the case before President Roosevelt, then assembles his team one-by-one, and ultimately sends them off in pairs across Europe to embark on their various missions (while occasionally regrouping as events evolve). In doing so, the film pulls more from classics like The Dirty Dozen and The Bridge on the River Kwai than it does, say, full combat movies like The Longest Day, often with the jaunty disposition of The Great Escape. Clooney also makes subtle references to more recent fare like Saving Private Ryan through moments of combat crossfire, or following the wake of D-Day.
The aforementioned pairings of the characters are comically odd by design. They allow for banter and levity that can turn on a dramatic dime when dangers arise. From John Goodman and Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin (reteaming from their Best Picture collaboration The Artist), to Bill Murray and Bob Balaban (another reteaming, from Moonrise Kingdom), to Clooney's aging leader Stokes with the team’s youngest member, a Jew named Sam Epstein (newcomer Dimitri Leonidas), the chemistry of the cast enables us to remain engaged and entertained as the story leisurely jumps from one mission to the next.
More personal and emotional layers are added through the remaining three pairings, starting with disgraced British officer Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville, the Grantham patriarch of Downton Abbey). Looking for redemption, he sets out alone to secure the Madonna of Bruges before that Belgian city is laid waste. For Jeffries, it's a mission that becomes as much for his estranged father as it is for civilization.
Meanwhile in Paris, New York's Met museum curator James Granger collaborates with French art historian Claire Simone (Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, yet another reteaming, from The Talented Mr. Ripley) to utilize her vast detailed logs compiled during her forced work with German occupiers who looted French collections and redistributed their pieces across Europe. It’s a relationship (based on real-life counterparts James Rorimer and Rose Valland) that must overcome Claire's deep distrust of all foreign motives, and grows into something that flirts with the line between innocent crush and wartime romance.
Like the war movies of yore, The Monuments Men expresses in equal measure a nationalistic moral clarity and a humble sense of global responsibility. It elicits a sense of pride and respect for the Allied forces – specifically those of the U.S. and Western European nations. It's a movie with an unabashed flag-waving spirit that never once sinks to crass chest-beating jingoism. This is not a film that boasts about our soldiers' efforts; it honors them.
More specifically, its tone combines sentiment and reverence, best exemplified by a poignant use of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." It's not awkward in embracing or applauding the import of its mission to save centuries of art and culture, nor of its appreciation of those who protected it.
The film does fall prey on occasion to making speeches and posing heavy-handed questions like "Was it worth it?" when the answer is so clearly self-evident. But momentary, forgivable over-reaches aside, The Monuments Men is an elegant homage, particularly in its glossy Old Hollywood production values, foremost of which is Alexandre Desplat’s stylish score. The music is a mix of marching pomp and lush sweep, and calls back more than a few memories on its own.
Some may accuse Clooney of having gone soft as a filmmaker, especially after beginning his directorial career with inventive and risky endeavors. But in this case the patriotic schmaltz feels right. Art and Culture is how the generations that have come and gone remain immortal. Art and Culture is how we remain connected to them. It's how we know who they were, and it will be how future generations know us. If we can’t be sentimental about that, then we've lost touch with the very culture that those brave men fought to preserve.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Occasional scenes of casual alcohol consumption (champagne, liquor). Cigarette smoking occurs regularly, as was common to the time.
- Language/Profanity: Occasional spurts of profanity, but without resorting to the most explicit or vulgar forms. Ten uses of the S-word, six uses of the H-word, and six variations on the Lord’s name in vain.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: The painting of a nude woman on the side of a fighter plane. Romantic tension between a man and woman, but ultimately innocent in nature.
- Violence/Other: Some war violence, but not overly graphic. Bombings, and the after-effects of war on urban landscapes. Various forms of gun violence, including perils of crossfire and threats from snipers. A few people are shot, blood from wounds seeps through clothes, and some deaths.
Publication date: February 7, 2014Page Source (url): http://www.crosswalk.com/culture/movies/the-monuments-men-movie-review.html