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 and Heslov co-wrote and co-produced this fact-based action drama, and Clooney also took on double duty as director and star of “Monuments.”
Clooney plays 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. Eisenhower 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 on-screen 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 is self-conscious about his small physical stature.
Murray's character is based in part on architect Robert Posey, who discovered the salt mine at Altaussee where the Nazis had stashed the Ghent Altarpiece, the Bruges Madonna, Vermeer'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.
Based on the thoroughly researched book by Robert Edsel with Bret Witter, the story repeatedly poses the questions: 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 is a resounding yes, and Clooney and company state that case inarguably, creating a treasure of a thriller to boot.
— Gene Triplett, for The Oklahoman