‘The Monuments Men’ movie review: George Clooney, Matt Damon recover stolen art

During the later years of the Second World War, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was put together by the Allied armies to help preserve and protect cultural artifacts, artwork, and historic locations that had been damaged by war efforts. As Allied forces made their way through occupied territories, officers in the program assessed damage done to monuments and made plans for their future restoration. 

They also sought to locate and return the millions of pieces of artwork that had been stolen by the Nazis under one of Adolf Hitler’s more personal pursuits: the monumental (but unrealized) Führermuseum in Linz was to house a huge collection of material plundered from Europe during WWII. Allied forces uncovered thousands of repositories of stolen art (along with pieces legitimately relocated for preservation during the war) throughout Germany and elsewhere hidden in salt mines and castles. 

The “Monuments Men” was the name given to the officers enlisted to help with this cause. Rather than being strictly military personnel, the 400+ men and women who travelled among the front lines were museum curators, historians, architects, and others who used expertise in their respective fields to accomplish something that didn’t really have a wartime precedent. They not only had to fight to accomplish their mission, but to combat a prevailing military attitude that didn’t have much respect for what they were attempting to do. 

“Was it worth it?” FDR asks Frank Stokes in The Monuments Men, after men have died during the cause. “Was a piece of art worth risking these lives?”

Directed by George Clooney (who also co-wrote the film with Grant Heslov, and stars in the lead), The Monuments Men tells the story of a handful of these men and their wartime efforts. Art conservation specialist Stokes (Clooney) pulls together a handful of men from the art world (played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville) to undergo basic training and ship out to the front lines.

Their stories unfold in episodic fashion: while Stokes pushes for cooperation from the Allies, James Granger (Damon) infiltrates occupied territory and tries to gain the trust of French curator Claire (Cate Blanchett); Donald Jeffries (Bonneville) attempts to save Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child in Belgium; Richard Campbell (Murray) and Preston Savitz (Balaban) track down the Van Eyck altarpiece; and Walter Garfield (Goodman) and Jean Claude Clermont (Dujardin) get caught up in crossfire. 

With the large ensemble cast and a somewhat brisk two-hour running time, we never really get to know these characters, and there’s surprisingly little substance to their stories. I quite liked the slow-burn relationship between the characters played by Damon and Blanchett, but was shocked at how much screen time was eaten up by so little plot. 

The pace is leisurely, the story is lacking in drama or tension, and despite being set on the front lines of WWII, there is precious little violence or even conflict. Like Clooney’s previous feature (Leatherheads), The Monuments Men gives off a downright old-fashioned vibe. Which isn’t a bad thing; in this era of amped-up, artificial drama, this one feels refreshingly laid-back, even if that sounds counterintuitive given the setting. 

It’s also a fascinating story, told well enough to maintain your attention (if not actively engage you in its plot) and draw interest in the real-life program it depicts; the film is based on Robert Edsel’s nonfiction novel The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, which sounds a heckuva lot more exciting than Clooney’s film going by the title alone. 

But a number of individual scenes really capture your imagination; a nighttime confrontation between the Murray and Balaban characters and a young German soldier, in particular, hits all the right notes. The film’s message is driven home during scenes with some pointed satire: while the Monuments Men get precious little attention for their efforts in locating the millions of invaluable art pieces, the military, and the media, is all over their discovery of Nazi gold. 

The old-fashioned feeling is bolstered by Alexandre Desplat’s terrific, military-tinged original score, which underscores the action with an upbeat, almost Elmer Bernstein Great Escape vibe. 

Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael nicely captures locations across Germany and England. In case you’re wondering about the striking similarity between Clooney and the actor who plays the older version of his character in the film’s final scene, that’s actually his father, Nick Clooney. 

The Monuments Men has been roundly dismissed by most critics (though audiences have been a bit more accommodating, with the film handily outgrossing the more expensive RoboCop remake), racking up a rotten 34% on the Tomatometer. Don’t be turned off: this is an especially solid (if unspectacular) film that brings to life one of the great unsung stories of WWII. 


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *