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Movie review: 'The Monuments Men'

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The Monuments Men

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“Disappointment” is one of the first words that comes to mind when considering the film “The Monuments Men”. Not because it’s a bad film—actually, it’s pretty good—but it’s not the brilliant film it appeared to be from its trailers and advertisements, which sparked a bit of awards season talk—that is, until the film got pushed back until February.

But “The Monuments Men” is admirable for being a different kind of World War II film, one that depicts a side of that era of history that chances are, few are aware of. The movie is directed and co-written by George Clooney, who also stars as Frank Stokes, an art expert who convinces President Roosevelt to let him form a team of artists, historians, and curators to go to Germany, retrieve art that is being stolen by the Nazis, and return it to its rightful owners. This team calls themselves the Monuments Men, and they are a ragtag crew at that; with most of the able-bodied young men already serving in the military, the only ones left are older and untrained in combat. Those men include James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Donald Jefferies (Hugh Bonneville), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin).

Although their intentions are noble, the men run into many obstacles along the way. The army refuses to give up tactical positions merely for the purpose of preserving art. Granger heads to Paris to track down stolen art, and has difficulty getting museum curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to trust him with what she knows. In fact, the men find that many of the people they are trying to help are reluctant, believing that they want to find and take the European art back to America.

“The Monuments Men” boasts a fine cast, and while the audience is given more backstory on some of the characters than others, Clooney manages to give them all distinct personalities and ample screen time. But the story suffers some as a result, the building up of the relationship between Granger and Claire being particularly rushed along.

There is also a conflict with the story’s tone. For the most part, it’s actually rather comedic, with a lot of light-hearted bantering between the characters and some amusing situations they get themselves in to. At times it shifts to a more dramatic look at the war, allowing a peek at the reality of what is happening, and there is some suspense as the men try to unravel the mystery as to where the Nazis hid all the art they stole, but in the end it doesn’t all mesh together well. This is a very serious war these men are involved in, but half the time you wouldn’t know it. As a result, what could have been a moving film about the importance of art in our culture often comes off as nothing more than a romp across Europe.

That’s not to say “The Monuments Men” doesn’t have a good, clear message—because it’s overstated quite a bit. Still, this film presents a true story that’s rather exciting to learn about, and does make you consider the value of a thing that seems superficial. Watching the photos of the real-life Monuments Men playing through the end credits made me want to learn more about them, and reading about them made me a little sad that this story and others like it aren’t taught as part of the war’s history. It’s a lesson that’s more important than it seems; as Frank Stokes says in the film, art is an integral part of every culture, and “if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed.”

Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.

Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:

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