Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Film Review | The Monuments Men

As earnest as a Boy Scouts handbook, and about as complex, George Clooney’s The Monuments Men is an unremarkable movie about the remarkable story of an American-led effort to rescue Europe’s art heritage from plundering Nazis towards the end of the World War II. Written by Clooney and Grant Heslov and based on Robert M. Edsel’s book of the same name, The Monuments Men reconstructs the coming together of curators, art historians and architects under the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives programme to retrieve looted paintings and sculpture and restore them to their rightful owners, including museums, churches and Jewish families. The original group, which were sent into the war zone to prevent the Nazis from stealing the artworks and transporting them to a planned museum in Austria, ran into a few hundreds, but in the interests of drama and rolling out a narrative of The Dirty-Dozen-inspired bravery, foolhardiness, dedication and triumph, we are stuck with a handful of men and one initially uncooperative woman.

The woman is French, so, naturellement, she is initially hostile towards the Americans and suspects them of wanting to keep the art treasures for themselves (hardly an unreasonable thought). Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) is loosely based on Rose Valland, a Resistance fighter who spied on the Nazis, kept notes of their plunders, and saved several works of art for her government. Yet, the character’s key contribution to the plot, apart from handing over an all-important diary containing lists of the stolen works to monuments man James Granger, is to desperately flirt with him since, after all, the meeting is taking place in the city of love, it’s war-time and Granger is played by Matt Damon.

Poor Claire is not the only character who gets short shrift in the screenplay, which is less interested in hunting down Nazis and outracing the Russians, who also have designs on the artworks, than emphasizing the price being paid by the monuments men, played by big-name actors like Clooney, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban. The movie proceeds at the pace of drying paint and is too distracted by episodes of embarrassingly clunky buddy behaviour between the characters played by Murray and Balaban and chatter about families back home to get down to business, which finally happens after group member Donald (Hugh Bonneville) is killed by a looting Nazi.

It’s only when the monuments men realize that the Nazis have stashed away the art in various mines that the movie belatedly gets going (although even here, distraction reappears in a scene about Granger and an unexploded mine). The fact that Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael doesn’t deliver a single artistically composed and lit frame to showcase the fabulous paintings being saved, tells you everything you need to know about this shadow of a sketch of the impact of war on art.

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