My fellow Americans who hear criticisms of our country from Frenchmen sometimes revert to the obnoxious retort, “Hey, Frenchie, we saved your butt in the war.” Along comes “The Monuments Men,” which rubs salt into that wound by making heroes of Americans brought into the service of recovering thousands of art works stolen by the Nazis from Jews and from museums around the German occupied countries. True, not all of the band of so-called monuments men are Americans. There are even one French guy and a Brit. Come to think of it, by looking at the group of seven who performed a service not well known to those unaware of Robert Edsel and Bret Witter’s 2010 book “The Monuments Men,” we may forget that 350 people from thirteen countries were pressed into the service of recovering such major works as Michelangelo’s incredible sculpture “Madonna and Child.”
Instead of capturing the excitement of the book, Clooney and Heslov turn the story into one part PBS documentary, sober and calculating, and one part drama--except that narratives should have a modicum of character development, perhaps including a backstory or two. The seven Momuments Men led by American George Clooney as Frank Stokes include a group of professionals in the art world: a museum curator, James Granger (Matt Damon); an architect, Richard Campbell (Matt Damon); a sculptor, Walter Garfield (John Goodman); a British citizen, Donald Jeffries); an impresario, Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), a Frenchman, Jean Claude Clermont--and later, picked up from her secretarial job with a Nazi big shot, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). Their task is to recover stolen merchandise rather than allow these treasures to be destined largely for the Führermuseum in Linz, Austria.
The major theme of the movie is that without artistic creations (paintings, literature, sculpture, music), a people are without history, enduring a loss of the traditions that help to make life worthwhile. Even a murder or two of the monuments men could be justified if those persons had done heroic duty in saving a masterpiece, as professed at least twice after two of the men perish under fire.
“The Monuments Men” serves our public well by boosting whatever appreciation of painting exists in the minds and hearts of Philistines, i.e. those of us who value the riches that money can bring and deprecate the classics whose beauty should energize the hearts and spirits of human beings. Young people in the audience, including those who—like many of my former high-school students who thought that World War 2 was a conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—might recall that some events took place in the last century before they were even born. It might be difficult, however, for them to slog through this overextended, unfocused story whose principal action is the chatter among people who share a love for painting but who are barely interesting as separate personalities.
The picture has its moments, of course, involving such scenes as Frank Stokes’ questioning of a captured Nazi who was a concentration camp commandant. When Stokes replies “no” to the German’s questioning, “Are you Jewish?” the guy who asserts that he was “just following orders” offers, “Then you should thank me.” This leads to Stokes’ calm but penetrating monologue predicting that in the near future he would be sitting in Sid’s deli on New York’s Upper West Side reading the NY Times’ column about the hanging of the commandant as a war criminal. Stokes would have the paper on his lap, a toasted bagel and coffee in his hands.
Cate Blanchett, considered by some to be the world’s best actress, shines in her role, whether spitting into the champagne glass of a Nazi art thief or indulging in the early stages of a romance with James Granger—having dropped her armor of distrust in favor of welcoming the activities of the monument men. As a whole, though, neither the banal conversations of the men nor the activities involved in locating the art works come close to being riveting.
Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online