I’m a sucker for films set in World War II, whether the European front or the Pacific front. The list of good WWII films is endless, but I’ll highlight some of my favorites, including Saving Private Ryan, Flags of our Fathers, and Tora! Tora! Tora! along with a few comic films set in the same era: Catch-22 and How I Won The War. What they all have in common is a certain gravitas, even the comedies. War is hell. Really.
And that’s the problem I have with The Monuments Men. I really wanted to like this film because the story upon which it’s based is quite fascinating. There really was a small group of American servicemen tasked with the job of finding and recovering all the art treasures that the German army was plundering from the invaded territories, and they did find thousands upon thousands of magnificent pieces that would otherwise have vanished into private collections or been destroyed.
Watch the riveting first hour of Saving Private Ryan where director Steven Spielberg does an astonishing job of recreating the invasion of Normandy, then watch the scene in The Monuments Men where they’re on that same beach a week or two later. The problem is one that plagues the entire film: where are the bodies? Where is the horrible detritus of war, the impact that it’s had on the people, whether troops (of both sides) or civilians?
The Monuments Men is scrubbed too clean, it’s too much of a whitewash in the name of entertainment to work as a drama set during the closing months of World War II for this critic.
Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there’s a lot to like in the film too. It is quite entertaining in a “made-for-TV” sort of way, and the cast is very good, albeit I’m getting tired of George Clooney always playing the same emotionless gravel-voiced elder statesman, as he does in this film as its narrator and lead.
The film that most comes to mind when considering The Monuments Men is Oceans Eleven, with a similar ensemble cast that overshadows the material and a light tone that assures us viewers that nothing’s really that dangerous and our heroes will always overcome. Yes, there are casualties among the seven members of the Monuments Men squad, but even those are discretely handled so as to ensure that no viewers are upset.
The question that keeps coming up in the film itself is whether a human life is worth sacrificing to rescue or recover a piece of art, however beautiful or important it may be to historians or a religious order?
The squad is composed of American servicemen, but there’s a German-born, an Italian, an Englishman, and others. The typical motley crew of every war movie ever made. Their leader is Frank Stokes (George Clooney) who, as is usual, has almost no emotional range, a typical limitation Clooney has cinematically. The squad: Campbell (an amusing Bill Murray), Garfield (a wasted John Goodman), the Frenchman Clermont (the always likable Jean Dujardin), Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Savitz (the irascible Bob Balaban) and the New Joisey Jew Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), dragooned into service while they’re in the field. A crew surprisingly reminiscent of Oceans Eleven: they all get along, they have instant camaraderie, and they’re all neat and clean at all times.
The more interesting storyline is with the French-speaking James Granger (Matt Damon) pursues a different mission, trying to glean information on where all the art was sent from the lovely Claire Simone (a wonderful Cate Blanchett) who was jailed as a collaborator after the Allies forcibly eject the Nazis from Paris. She knows where all the treasures from the Paris museums and private collections were sent, but will she tell Granger and risk having them stolen by the Americans from the Germans?
The Monuments Men is entertaining to watch, it’s well assembled and the exterior shots are all polished and neat. There’s one token sequence in a forward camp where Garfield receives a recorded album from his wife and grandchildren that Savitz manages to have played on the camp PA system, which we hear as the camera cuts between the two men and a tragic scene in the medical tent where injured men are being tended or triaged and left to die, but that’s the only scene in the entire movie that felt like it had something to do with an actual war.
And that’s what makes me less than enthusiastic about the film. It’s enjoyable, but I want war movies to remind us of the horror, the tragedy, the senseless loss of life on both sides, of the boys who become men in the field just in time to take a bullet. In the hands of a different director this could have made my list of best WWII films, but as it is, this is just Hollywood at work. If you see it go watch one of the other films on my list afterwards to remember that war is hell.