Once again, simply because a film has a stellar cast and a director who has hit it out of the park a few times, doesn't mean said film will be an Oscar contender. This is exactly what happened with "The Monuments Men" when it became clear that it was not of that caliber. It was pulled from the already over-crowded fall schedule to be released now.
Which doesn't mean it's a bad film --- it's not. But the initial feedback must have convinced those involved that "The Monuments Men" would fare better with a February opening. Directed by and starring George Clooney, who also adapted the screenplay with Grant Heslov, "The Monuments Men" gives life to a fascinating true story of a group of men, who were not "real" soldiers, but who risked their lives behind enemy lines to save invaluable art stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
Based on the book "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History" written by Robert M. Edsel, and co-authored by Bret Witter, Clooney's movie illuminates the work of the Army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program. Other books and documentaries have showcased these heroic efforts, but this cast and crew will forever cement a relatively unknown part of the war in our memories.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, an art conservationist, who convinces President Roosevelt of the need to recover and repatriate the national treasures of Europe looted by the Nazis. Stokes' character is based on George Stout, Clooney's real-life second cousin, three times removed, which makes this piece of history rather personal for Clooney. And, according to Edsel, Stout was every bit as charismatic as Clooney --- and even performed with a theatrical troupe during World War I.
Stokes manages to recruit James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clemont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), all of them either museum directors, curators, architects or art historians. The war is swiftly coming to an end, and their job is to find these precious artifacts before they are destroyed by the Germans or confiscated by the Russians.
Though there is a certain amount of sentimentality to "The Monuments Men", and a good deal of "rah-rah-sis-boom-bah" for the good guys, there is still a worthwhile story here. Perhaps a little more character development of these brave men and their backgrounds --- how did most of them know each other ---
would have provided greater interest. They all seem to care deeply about one another, but we, the audience, don't know the reasons.
The guys are all great, but Bill Murray is a true standout in this crowd. His last few films have definitely proven that he can do a great deal more than just comedy. Cate Blanchett, the only prominent female in the cast, portrays Claire Simone, a curator at the Jeu de Paume Art Museum in Paris. She tries in vain to play the femme fatale, but with little success --- not one of her better performances.
In the arid February landscape of movies, "The Monuments Men" is not a bad compromise. Clooney and his compatriots bring a very important, though little known, segment of World War II to everyone's attention --- which is a very good thing!
Opinion: Mild See It Now!
Is priceless art worth saving if it costs a human life? That's the essential question raised in "The Monuments Men", directed, co-written and produced by George Clooney, who also stars as Frank Stokes, the leader of the group whose mission it was to recover historical and personal artwork confiscated by the Nazis during World War II.
This film is based on the true story of everyday men who left their families and careers to track down thousands of works of art --- paintings and sculptures, some famous, some not ---which had been stolen by Hitler's troops before and during the war. Hitler's intent was to exhibit this artwork in his own museum in his hometown in Austria, but the Monuments Men, while at great personal risk, proved instrumental in crushing his dream, up to and beyond Germany's surrender in 1945.
Based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, Clooney's screenplay, co-written with close friend Grant Heslov, features a band of seven men who, with the blessing of FDR and the support of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, travel behind enemy lines in Europe to track down the missing artwork. The all-star cast, in addition to Clooney, features Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Bob Balaban, plus Cate Blanchett as a French employee of Paris' Jeu de Paume museum from which many of the pieces were taken.
Early on we know Claire Simone (Blanchett) is not a Nazi sympathizer when she spits into the empty champagne glass of an SS officer who has taken over her office. Simone plays a much larger role in the film, conferring with Damon's character, James Granger, on the whereabouts of much of the artwork.
Like most of Clooney's movies, "The Monuments Men" is filled with colorful players --- Goodman and Murray, in particular --- and the screenplay has many lighter moments despite the gravity of the group's situation. Alexandre Desplats provides the rousing musical score, and while the movie is predictable, there are some tense moments. In one scene, Damon's character is trapped atop a land mine --- is it still "live", or can he step off it with body parts intact?
Pushing the film back from its original December release was a good idea. "The Monuments Men" is not Oscar material, but it is solid entertainment. Clooney does not wisecrack in his usual manner, he actually treats the subject matter with the reverence it deserves. And using his directorial license, look for Clooney's father Nick, at the movie's conclusion, when the question posed in the first sentence of this review is answered.
Opinion: See It Now!