By Mike Dyer, Senior Writer
World War II is a subject that has been portrayed and dramatized on the silver screen for decades. Over time, we have seen true stories, fictitious tales, fictitious stories with real people and true stories with fictitious people. The film discussed here falls under the latter. Directed by two time Academy Award recipient George Clooney, “The Monuments Men” tells the true story of some brave men who had to utilize their profession on the battlefield, as well as the sacrifices they made all in the name of history. Packed with an A-list cast and spectacular setting “The Monuments Men” is a story that isn’t afraid to laugh at itself, while still playing on an emotional chord.
The film opens in 1943 at the height of World War II. A monologue by Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is set to live action clips of the war and photographs of damage to some of the Europe’s most historic landmarks. He continues to explain to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Adolf Hitler has the Third Reich scavenging master works of art from across the continent for a planned German museum. After convincing the President of the urgency of the matter, Stokes is given permission to round up a group of the allies’ top art historians, experts, museum curators and architects to form a squadron dubbed “The Monuments Men.” Their mission is to locate and return stolen works of art to their rightful owners. Stokes first has to put the U.S. recruits through basic training and upon completion they consist of Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon), Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). Once overseas the groups meets up with French recruit Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Englishmen Lt. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and the defected German-born Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). These unlikely heroes team up and spread across Europe meeting up with allied forces working towards Germany. Lt. Granger quickly encounters French curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) whom he must befriend as she holds the key to understanding the Nazi’s system for the organization of the stolen art. Shortly into their mission, “The Monuments Men” are quick to discover the tragedy of war and the emotional toll placed on them in this dark chapter of history.
From the opening frame, director George Clooney is able to capture the essence of the 1940s in minute detail. The set dressing is fantastic without being overly detailed. Period correct vehicles, uniforms and weaponry fill the screen. They go well with the use of practical locations and minimal backgrounds. Perhaps the only drawback to having Clooney behind the camera in this film is his performance in front of the camera is a tad lackluster. Ironically, it stands out in scenes when he had to carve the best out of his supporting cast. From their first frame together, Matt Damon and Clooney’s on screen camaraderie is nothing short of spectacular, no doubt based on the real life friendship they forged during the “Ocean’s” trilogy. Holding their own emotional weight when needed, Bill Murry and John Goodman embrace the glass half full point of view in the tense situations, while relying on their comedic talent to occasionally break the tension. It is however the banter between Murry’s Sgt. Campbell and Balaban’s Pvt. Savitz that reminds us about true casualties of war, as well as all soldiers, no matter their age or affiliation, always spend time on the battlefield missing home. Blanchett’s Simone is witty and reclusive, but her character lacks over all charm. Jean Dujardin as Lt. Clermont and Hugh Bonneville as Lt. Jeffries help give the film’s message an international voice as both actors utilize their native tongues in character. Standing out from the whole cast is Dimitri Leonidas as Sam Epstein. At times he seems to outdo the films A-list when they share the same frame.
The most entertaining aspect of the film doesn’t come from the setting or the cast. Instead it is the humor both direct and indirect that keeps you invested. It’s impossible not to laugh when Bill Murray is spinning yarns while his character is getting a tooth pulled. And I ask anyone to not chuckle at the faults in the logic of yesteryear. Just take the doctor giving a physical while smoking a cigarette as one example. Adding to the film’s lighter side is the original score by composer Alexandre Desplat. The music is emotional when it needs to be, but its charm expresses the diversity of its characters while proving to be memorable enough for you to whistle as you walk out of the theater. In a lot of ways “The Monuments Men” is reminiscent of WWII classics like “The Great Escape” in that it is a war movie with a cast of characters that can provide just as many laughs as pulls at the strings of your heart.
In closing, “The Monuments Men” isn’t without its faults, but it remains a statement unto itself all the same. Take away the setting of WWII and you want to see this movie just to see this kind of cast put together. Add the setting and what you are left with is a film that deals with the travesty of war while still knowing when and when not to take itself too seriously. The film and its premise prove its worth in its message of reminding us that all soldiers are willing to lay down their lives in service to a greater cause.