If you’re wondering what kind of war film George Clooney has made in The Monuments Men, it can be easily summed up a third of the way through the film. Two American soldiers share a cigarette with a German solder and the only words they share in common is ‘John Wayne’. And that’s what this is; a John Wayne – 50’s style war film. Full of brave heroes with gallows humour wit, no dissent amongst the ranks and the loss of a fellow soldier is encapsulated by the short but sweet term “hell of a thing.” Don’t expect much in terms of the wider scale of the tragedy. Briefly mentioned in places, there really isn’t much time for that.
It starts out at a pace – like the Indiana Jones 4 we all wished we’d seen, a parade of Nazi’s driving through 1943 occupied Paris, arriving at the National Gallery and hand picking great works of art to be presented to the Fuhrer himself. A quick jump across the Atlantic and we are in a darkened government room watching slides of famous relics of art that have been seized by Hitler. The man giving the presentation, jacket, beard and spectacles all in check is George Clooney. What does he want? To assemble a group of art historians, architects, and other likewise experts-come-unlikely-heroes, land on the frontline and save the western world’s most important cultural and historical artefacts before they are hidden away for good, or worse; destroyed.
Through the opening credits he assembles his team, who are basically some of the best actors to have worked in Hollywood over the past 30 years; Murray, Goodman, Damon are all plucked along for the ride. “You want to get in the war?” “Sure do!” Is the response and suddenly its feeling like a high art version of the A Team – and perhaps that isn’t too far off what the real Monuments men were like. But that’s where the similarities end, this isn’t an Indiana Jones movie where the Nazi’s are shooting at the protagonists all movie long, although there is a bit of that. This is a film based on real events, based on real people who risked their lives for the sake of keeping our culture and history alive and not eradicated into extinction by the Third Reich.
And because of this it’s a hard story not to like. This is an incredible chapter as yet to be told from the single most documented event in modern history. Clooney has set us a very important question; is art, is culture, is the expression of what makes us ‘us’ worth the price of a human life? It seems to me this is the crux of going to war when our freedom is threatened. If not for this, then what else? And Clooney has found a story which encapsulates this perfectly and turns it into a much smaller, neater story. The trouble is, it still isn’t small enough.
There were some 370 Monument Men in reality. Here, a stellar cast of eight try to tell that story, and although it’s a bit of a dream team of talent, by numbers alone, we don’t get to see enough of them. Split across Europe, in search of lost treasures, we are bounced about from one scene to the next, never with enough time to stop and indulge in their chemistry. I could have watched just a couple of these guys go at it for far longer. They are not together as a unit enough and in the scenes they are, the dialogue and chemistry is magical.
Stand out performances have to go to Bill Murray and Kate Blanchet. Just when you think everyone is playing to their strengths, Murray turns everything on its head with a moment halfway through the film that is just seconds long, but shows us something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen from him before. Blanchet, who seems to have a never-ending array of interesting performances up her sleeve, plays the mis-trusting Parisian gallery employee with brilliant initial distain for Matt Damon’s Monument Man; a women who needs him to prove he’s not just there to steal the artwork for the Americans. Of course he’s not and this is a big part of the film; this being the only time in history the spoils of war were not kept by the victors, but returned to their rightful owners.
And that’s what makes Monuments Men such an interesting and important film; if not the most remarkable.
UK Release: 14th February 2014
Director: George Clooney (The Ides of March)
Written by: George Clooney & Grant Heslov (The Ides of March), Based on a non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel
Producers: George Clooney & Grant Heslov (Argo, The Ides of March)
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville
Paul Mcghie is an Award-Winning Screenwriter, Director, London Lift-Off Film Festival Judge and git. You can check out his feature project here. His work is on Vimeo or you can follow him on twitter @DirPaulMcGhie