Modern American cinema should be grateful to George Clooney for his commitment to the very kind of inspiring, old-fashioned historical movie that is his latest endeavor, The Monuments Men. It not only tells the little-known dramatic tale of the rescue of Western art in World War II, but is also speaks with a forceful conviction about the moral and cultural values which must be the underpinnings of civilization.
Based on the book by Robert M. Edsel, Clooney and co-writer/producer Grant Heslov tell the true story of an unlikely band of Allied soldiers, art experts commissioned to prevent Hitler’s destruction of Europe’s great art treasures and to return the stolen works to their rightful owners. As witnessed in their earlier collaborations like Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney and Heslov’s gifts lie in their obviously passionate stake in their material and their unabashed willingness to wage their own propaganda war for what they believe to be the moral high ground. If the script becomes occasionally preachy – most notably in Frank Stokes’ (Clooney’s) lecture presentations to FDR and in the somewhat gratuitous ending with Stokes and his grandchild – this does not detract in any major way from the overall impact. The plot is constructed around a series of touching, often humorous episodes involving eight men and their adventures at the close of World War II.
For all their star power, the cast, which Clooney has assembled, functions beautifully as an ensemble, and Clooney, as director, allows each of the actors to play to his own individual strengths. As Frank Stokes, Clooney, himself, is all understated sincerity, and this goes a long way to blunting any sentimentality. He plays a darkly deadpan scene with a captured SS officer with an icy chill, and his tears at uncovering the Bruges Madonna are an example of the actor’s skill at “less is more.” Matt Damon is similarly restrained and ironic as the Met’s curator, James Granger, who has the only romantic sequence in the film with the incomparable Cate Blanchett as a tough Resistance art assistantfrom the Jeu de Paume.
For all the skill and screen appeal of these three, however, it is the supporting cast who often steal the show. Bill Murray, the creator of so many offbeat characters, is quietly incandescent as the architect Richard Campbell. His two scenes with the equally poignant and droll Bob Balaban as Preston Stivitz are the the film’s highlights: one in which he diffuses a confrontation with a German soldier by evoking John Wayne and the other where he listens in the shower as Stivitz plays over the camp loudspeaker a recorded Christmas message from home, the tears welling slowly in his eyes.
Similarly well-paired are John Goodman as a terse, lumbering Walter Garfield and Jean Dujardin as his jaunty French colleague, Jean Claude Clermont, who loses his life, but not his Hemingwayesque grace under pressure.”
Dimitri Leonidas gives an incisive turn as the platoon’s young German Jewish driver, Sam Epstein, while Hugh Bonneville shines as the redeemed Donald Jeffries. Bonneville is accorded one of the most heartrending scenes in the film, as he writes home to his father of his joy at locating the Bruges Madonna only moments before he is shot by a retreating German officer.
That scene, which begins with Jeffries’ voice-over narrating his epistle while we see blood droplets fall on his letter and then the shot moves to reveal him fatally wounded, is one of Clooney’s better uses of the camera. In general his direction emphasizes narrative and dramatic clarity rather than atmospheric poetry, but he and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael are to be congratulated for managing so seamlessly the evocation of war torn Europe, melding sets with live location footage. Moreover, in a film about art, the art direction team led by Helen Jarvis outdoes itself in recreating the splendor of the stolen treasures. Some of the most breathtaking moments come as the audience shares the awe-struck glimpses of the Monuments Men as they behold the great works in the flesh. These, underscored by Alexandre Desplat’s romantic score, tug at the heart.
At the end of the movie Stokes answers the skeptical FDR’s question about whether saving a work of art has been worth the sacrifice of men’s lives, but Clooney’s emphatic affirmative here is almost redundant. The film has answered this more eloquently before: in Jeffries’ beatific smile as he comes face to face with Michelangelo’s Madonna, in Campbell and Stivitz’s elation at the discovery of the last Ghent Altarpiece panel, or in Epstein’s quietly emotional encounter with the elusive Rembrandt of his youth. The Monuments Men not only tells a story of the bravery and foresight, conviction and perseverance of men whose lives bore testimony to their values, but is also brings palpably to life the great art of Western Europe. In Clooney’s film the heroes are not only the soldiers of World War II, but also the timeless artists whose genius continues to live in the beauty they bequeathed to man as his inalienable birthright.