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"The Monuments Men" reveals that truth outstrips fiction

Monuments Men

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Directed by, co-written by, and starring George Clooney, “The Monuments Men” combines the story of a real-life WWII band of art saviors with a stellar cast but, sadly, comes out with a product far less than the sum of its parts.

The Monuments Men
The Monuments MenColumbia Pictures/Fox 2000 Pictures

“The Monuments Men” tells the fictionalized version of the based-on-a-true-story heroism of a small group of American soldiers (many of whom had extensive art, drama, or architecture backgrounds), who are tasked with the preservation of Western art in Europe from Nazi Germany (and the Third Reich’s planned Führer Museum).

As such, under the approval of FDR, big-time art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney) rounds up a group of ragtag middle-aged (or older) men (played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban), all of whom are art, drama, or architecture-savvy. Each is soon slapped into a military uniform, given a modicum of military training, and taken to the very front lines of the European battle to save as much Western art as they can from pillage or destruction, particularly the mega-important Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. Chief among his recruits is Metropolitan Museum of Art medievalist, James Granger (Damon), who is sent to Paris to work with French curator (and sometime-spy) Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to try to deduce what art the Nazis took and where they took it.

The “Men” soon realize that the art is at risk from not only Germany but also from Russia (whose “liberation” from Nazism involves capturing art as remuneration for its wartime losses) and even U.S. troops (as bombing/destruction has led to the unintended consequences of major art destruction). Intent on saving as much art as quickly as possible, they repeatedly put their lives on the line, as time is of the very essence to avoid cultural obliteration.

With such lofty and patriotic ideals, a fantastic true-story background, and a tried-and-true cast, “The Monuments Men” seemed like a sure bet. Unfortunately, though, the movie misses its mark by a mile. “The Monuments Men” is unexpectedly beset by pacing and tonal problems throughout. And, further, it seems unclear what Clooney was trying to achieve. Some scenes are fun and paper-thin (Murray and Balaban are often the comic-relief pair) with a light tone, and then, suddenly, an emotionally awkward (and usually insincere) scene is jammed in, as if to milk the audience for emotion and remind them that this “really is” a war movie. Dots are not connected between the characters, and we only hazily understand the motivations of each. (A likely problem due to the fact that these few characters, that we are to believe numbered only a handful, were really composites of the several hundred that eventually made up the ranks of the “The Monuments Men”). Even worse, the film often feels like a choppy made-for-television movie based on a bunch of episodes loosely tied together.

The film is not truly unwatchable by any stretch, and there are a few poignant moments that actually work, especially when Damon and Blanchett are together on screen. But, truly, the creation of “The Monuments Men” was worthwhile if it highlights to the public that these real-life, soldiers for art put themselves in harms way for the future benefit of all (ultimately, and mindbogglingly, saving over 5 million pieces). But a more fitting tribute might be, instead, to watch the fascinating 2006 documentary (aired also on PBS), “The Rape of Europa,” and leave “The Monuments Men” for a later streaming rental. For “The Monuments Men,” the truth is really much more compelling than fiction. “The Monuments Men” is rated 3 - of 5 stars.

“The Monuments Men” is rated PG-13 for “images of war violence and historical smoking.”

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