Review: The Monuments Men

George Clooney;Bill Murray;Bob Balaban

When taking into account the totality of carnage that the second World War brought upon the world, it’s easy to think of the destruction in terms of brick, mortar, and human flesh. However, the turning point of the 20th century also carried the risk of destroying entire civilizations, not by desecrating a people, but by wiping out their works of art. The Monuments Men, George Clooney’s latest directorial foray, posits that had the works of some of the greatest artists of all time been destroyed by the Nazis, the cultural and historical loss would have been incalculable. In steep contrast to the contemporary grit and grime of war storytelling, Clooney’s latest is an uncynical throwback, and while it occasionally stoops itself into saccharine didactics, it still manages to be deft in its pacing and light on its feet.

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is nowhere near the average age of a soldier fighting in World War II. In 1944, as things are already beginning to turn around for the Allies, Stokes has put together a team of several art experts and collectors to head to Europe and recover what art they can before the retreating Nazis destroy it. While, like himself, the majority of these gents are past their expiration date for fitness, they nevertheless all chip in to locate the missing art. Their mission takes them country hopping, as they split up to cover more ground. Most critically, Stokes’ friend James Granger (Matt Damon) goes in search of a French museum curator (Cate Blanchett) who may know where the majority of the masterworks were taken. As the monuments men make their way through Europe, they have occasional success, but they also find that their pursuits may cost a human toll.

Given the subject matter, the tone of The Monuments Men could have fallen into pretension and self importance, but Clooney does a commendable job of balancing the gravitas with light touches of humor. The Monuments Men is a clear emulation of most American war films from the 1950s, which serves as a solid antidote to a few too many dour war films of late. Of course, the film can occasionally fall victim to some of the broad strokes that befell its predecessors. It has a tendency to lay the sentimentality on thick in a few scenes and be thematically direct, yet it also manages to stay away from outright blind patriotism. Part of this is due to a few international members of its cast, thanks to Frenchman Jean Dujardin and Brit Hugh Bonneville. In fact, the entire ensemble doesn’t hit a false note, with an easy rapport evident from such invaluable supporting players as Bob Balaban, John Goodman and Bill Murray. Its true that these men are by and large composite characters of the real monuments men, so none of them are fully fleshed out save for hints of backstory, but they all work well in service of the larger ensemble.

As a period film, there is a great deal to admire about the craft of The Monuments Men, starting with the photography. From the beaches of Normandy to the German castle of Neuschwanstein, there are literally dozens of locations and rarely do they blend together thanks to Phedon Papamichael’s measured camerawork. In order to jump around from one location to the next, Stephen Mirrione’s editing is the best aspect of The Monuments Men, nimbly following up to four story lines at once and largely finding the proper pace within each scene. Keeping with its time period, the production and costume design are both fully realized, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is a bit more flamboyant than what he’s accustomed to, but it fits nonetheless. On the whole, George Clooney’s latest may function primarily as pastiche, but at least the film carries no false illusions about itself. Perhaps its style is antiquated and too emotionally straightforward, but with its game cast and proper balance of tone and pacing, The Monuments Men is a solidly made piece of edutainment.

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~ by romancinema on February 8, 2014.

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