Leave it to George clooney to kick Hitler’s ass. In The Monuments Men, he kicks hard. But not in the way you think. It’s all part of the retro fun and addictive adventure in this relatively bloodless World War II epic. Clooney, who directed The Monuments Men from a script he wrote with his producing partner, Grant Heslov, is riled up about the masterpieces of painting and sculpture that the Führer annexed for himself as his armies goose-stepped across Europe. Quentin Tarantino bashed Nazi skulls in Inglourious Basterds. Clooney sees his film as more of a Nazi mindfuck. What if he and his actor pals, including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville, played aging artists, historians and museum geeks who head for the front lines to outwit the German high command by stealing back that art? It’s like an Ocean’s Eleven heist, but this time in uniforms and helmets.
And so we watch this over-the-hill gang, egged on by composer Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty marching theme, prep for bullets and shelling they’re not remotely equipped to handle. The mood is set for a highspirited free-for-all. And for a while, that’s what we get.
But then comes – wait for it! – a tone shift that may leave escapism junkies feeling betrayed. It turns out Clooney is hunting bigger game, something thoughtful, touching and true. You heard me, I said true. The plot only sounds improbable. It’s fact-based. Clooney’s source material is Robert Edsel’s 2010 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. The MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) unit really was tasked by FDR, with the support of Gen. Eisenhower, to rescue these masterpieces and to protect them from bombs, the enemy’s and our own.
Who knew? The work of the Monuments Men is fresh territory for film, and Clooney builds the story with intriguing detail and scope. Does he change names and futz with facts to protect innocent audiences who only want a good time? Sure. As a co-producer of Argo, last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, Clooney did the same thing. But the changes aren’t severe enough to get his dramatic license revoked. Plus, there’s no question that Clooney’s heart is with this ragtag band of brothers. Hitler had decreed that if he died and the war was lost, nearly 5 million pieces of stolen art should be destroyed. It’s his or nobody’s. Screw that, said the Monuments Men. Not on their watch.
It’s a kick gawking at stellar actors getting their blood up. Clooney excels as MFAA leader Frank Stokes, a character inspired by George Stout, who was doing art restoration at Harvard’s Fogg Museum when duty called. It’s Stokes who recruits James Granger (Damon), based on James J. Rorimer, who went on to be director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The bantering between Clooney and Damon gives the film a buoyant lift, but the seriousness of their mission is never in doubt.
In occupied Paris, Granger finds a crucial ally in Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a curator at the Jeu de Paume, a museum that the Nazis use as a repository for stolen art. It’s Simone, based on French Resistance leader Rose Valland, who keeps a record of where each piece is being routed.
The rest of the actors also have real-life counterparts. Murray and Balaban have the most fun, playing off their differences in height and attitude. Murray portrays architect Richard Campbell, much like Robert Posey, who discovered the salt mine at Altaussee where the Nazis had hidden many great works. Balaban takes the role of dandyish art connoisseur Preston Savitz, much like Lincoln Kirstein, the future co-founder of the New York City Ballet. Both assigned to Patton’s Third Army, they put aside their bickering to search for the “Ghent Altarpiece.”
Also buddying up are Goodman as combat-unready Walter Garfield, based on sculptor Walker Hancock, and Dujardin (Goodman’s co-star in The Artist), as a French Jew whose bond with Garfield grows as danger approaches. Everyone relies on Dimitri Leonidas as Pvt. Sam Epstein, a German-Jewish teen, based on the still-living Harry Ettlinger, who served as driver and translator for the men.
There are enough stories here to fill a dozen movies. Few are more affecting than the tale of Donald Jeffries, a Brit with the rank of major, much like English art historian Ronald Balfour. As played by Bonneville (Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey), Jeffries finds a goal outside the bottle in his search for the “Bruges Madonna,” by Michelangelo.
The physical production is exquisite, with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, an Oscar nominee for Nebraska, shooting on locations in Germany and England that stand in for a whole world at war.
Is there sex? Well, Damon and Blanchett have a flirty scene in a Paris apartment. But the real romance emerges when the men get up close and personal with the works of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Eyck and Vermeer. The artifacts are copies, of course, but the actors regard each painting as if they’re basking in a radiant sun.
In their search for looted art in mines and secret caves, the Monuments Men also discovered a Nazi stash of gold bullion. The gold got all the press. It still does. Look at the movie business. But don’t look here. Not in this proudly untrendy, uncynical movie. OK, the period dialogue (“Hey, fellas, you’re a sight for sore eyes”) is cornball. Ditto the emotions that well up when the men hear a Christmas song. But Clooney feels there’s much to be learned from these unsung art warriors. Going deeper is a Clooney signature. As the director of Good Night, and Good Luck, he looked for integrity in TV journalism. In The Ides of March, he searched for remnants of morality in politics. In The Monuments Men, he finds value in asking a question: Is saving art worth the sacrifice of a human life? A provocation? You bet. A surefire box-office recipe? Probably not. And yet the issues raised by the film remain sadly relevant. Check out the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad. What Clooney has crafted in The Monuments Men is a movie about aspiration, about culture at risk, about things worth fighting for. I’d call that timely and well worth a salute.