Film Review: The Monuments Men

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Plot: Based on a true story, a group of art historians, architects and curators (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean DuJardin, Hugh Bonneville and Bob Balaban) are tasked to return art stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners as well as preserve local art from destruction at the hands of the Allied Forces.

Is art worth dying for?

Not exactly the kind of question you’d expect The Monunments Men, the latest film from director/star George Clooney. At first blush, a movie that’s marketed as Ocean’s 11 set during World War II doesn’t seem like the kind of film that’d be asking such a serious and important question.

Photo by Claudette Barius - © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Photo by Claudette Barius – © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Yet, Clooney takes a huge risk and makes Monuments Men a movie that isn’t just around for pure entertainment, but one, like the men in the film, that takes an unusual but powerful stand for art.

Like any good story, the characters in the film are the stand-ins for the director and his audience. Clooney, as art historian/curator Frank Stokes, is begging those in power within the U.S. military to see that art is worth saving, fighting for and even dying for. His theory is that art is a key element to who people are as a culture and a society. Stokes has to convince these men in power much like Clooney, the director, has to convince his audience to engage this question in order to truly the enjoy the film and truly understand his motives for making it.

The fact you’ve been asked to tackle a grander question inside this film makes it that much better of a movie. You begin to believe in the cause of the characters, you understand the sacrifices they make and you actually see a different perspective of World War II. Monuments Men shows us that the eradication and stealing of the art of a conquered people was just another aspect of Hitler’s obsession with creating a master race and wiping cultures and ethnicities out of the pages of history. If this had been a “high ho, off to adventure!” kind of film it would’ve been fun, but it would never have stuck with you.

Photo by Claudette Barius - © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Photo by Claudette Barius – © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Now, let’s ground ourselves a bit, Monuments Men isn’t some high-minded philosophical treatise on art and war. It’s indeed a quite enjoyable and often times very funny film. The majority of the comedy, to no one’s surprise, comes from the teaming of the ever-wry Bill Murray and his slow burning straight man Bob Balaban. The two of them together are a wonderful spot of comic relief that brighten every scene they’re in with a terrific one-liners and a dynamite chemistry. They could’ve made the movie about these two and it probably would’ve been amazing.

As for the rest of the cast, these are all A-List players and their presence alone fills in the cracks of a rough early part of the film. One of the weak points of the film is that it fails to really give us much information about these men. We know very little about them, but with the cache of a cast such as this you start filling in the blanks of the characters with the actual personalities of the actors. It works for the most part, but a little more for these characters would’ve been nice.

Photo by Claudette Barius - © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Photo by Claudette Barius – © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The film also avoids a ton of Hollywood cliches, the most important being that the story does not put team into some sort of epic fire fight with the Nazis where they have to overcome the odds. That would’ve been silly and fitting for an Expendables sequel…and it would’ve made no sense within the world of the film as having a bunch of 40+ year old non-soldiers taking it to and defeating the Nazis would’ve been completely unbelievable. So, if that’s what you’re hoping for in this film, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

The Monuments Men is a film you shouldn’t sleep on. It’s a wonderfully crafted film that pays homage to the classic WWII film, embraces the humor and camaraderie of a group of like-minded men, it explores the real-life tragedy war and it makes us think about the nature of art itself. George Clooney knocked this one out of the park and has elevated Monuments Men from “just another” Clooney caper flick to something extraordinary.

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Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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