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Movie review: 'The Monuments Men' mixes action with art lesson

Gene Triplett Modified: February 8, 2014 at 9:30 pm •  Published: February 7, 2014
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Matt Damon, George Clooney

 

George Clooney leads a solid company of troupers into a little-known World War II story of a battle for beauty and combat for culture, emerging victorious with “The Monuments Men” when the smoke finally clears.

Hot on the heels of co-producing “August: Osage County” with partner Grant Heslov in sweltering north central Oklahoma, Clooney/Heslov co-wrote and co-produced this fact-based action drama and Clooney also took on double duty as director and star “Monuments,” playing Frank Stokes, an art historian working in art restoration at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, who becomes a prime mover and a leader of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) project, actually sanctioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and supported by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhour in the waning days of the war.

The story focuses on a unit made up of museum directors, artists, architects and curators – well-past draft age and completely lacking in combat skills – who don battle fatigues and take up rifles to make their way to the front lines of Europe to rescue the world’s greatest artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their rightful owners.

Hitler’s plundering of the great artworks of the Western world, and Allied efforts to retrieve them, make up a little-known chapter in the World War II struggle, addressed onscreen once before in John Frankenheimer’s 1964 Burt Lancaster vehicle, “The Train.” But Clooney’s account is far more detailed, with acts of heroism based on truth, and colorful characters based on real people.

And Clooney has a killer ensemble cast to flesh them out, including Matt Damon as James Granger, a character inspired by James Rorimer who later became director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Granger’s relationship with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) was inspired by Rorimer’s collaboration with Rose Valland, an employee of the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris who spied on the Nazis during their occupation and kept notes on their routings of stolen artwork. Blanchett is especially outstanding as a courageous and cunning woman working completely on her own, at great risk to her life.

Bill Murray brings moments of surprising emotional tenderness – especially in a Christmas eve scene when he hears his wife sing to him in a recording sent from home – and expected doses of wry humor in his lightheartedly contentious relationship with Bob Balaban’s character, a prim art collector who’s self-conscious about his small physical stature.

Murray’s character is based in part on architect Robert Posey, who actually discovered the salt mine at Altaussee, where the Nazis had stashed the Ghent Altarpiece, the Bruges Madonna, Vameer’s “The Astronomer,” and thousands of other works of art. Balaban’s character in turn is based on art connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein, future founder of the New York City Ballet.

And then there is ever dependable John Goodman as an overweight sculptor based on artist Walter Hancock, re-teamed with Jean Dujardin, his co-star in “The Artist,” as a French Jew who becomes his close friend before they fall into a deadly ambush.

As the war nears its end and Hitler orders all the captured artworks destroyed in the event of his death, the stakes are raised and the suspense builds to a climax that few works of fiction can match.

Based on the thoroughly-researched book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, the story repeatedly poses the question, are great works of art worth dying for? Is the evidence of an entire culture worth keeping alive? Considering what Hitler attempted to do to the Jews, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. And Clooney and company state that case inarguably, creating a treasure of a thriller to boot
- Gene Triplett

MOVIE REVIEW
‘The Monuments Men’
PG-13

1:58

3 stars
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban.
(Some images of war violence and historical smoking)