‘Monuments Men’ provides earnest tribute to protectors of culture

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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(from left) Dimitri Leonidas, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bob Balaban star in The Monuments Men. (Claudette Barius/Columbia Pictures)

In four films as a director, George Clooney has dug deep into American culture, whether that included the maker of The Gong Show (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), TV news and politics (Good Night, and Good Luck), football (Leatherheads) or the selling of political candidates (The Ides of March).

His fifth film, The Monuments Men, is somewhat more global, as it looks at the saving of precious artworks in Europe as the Third Reich was falling. But it is still about culture, what it includes, what is worth saving — and what we as a civilization gain from the preservation of symbols from our past.

More than once, in conversation and voice-over, the point is made as a small international band scours Europe for treasures stolen by the Nazis and either stashed away or destroyed. But it is a point strangely lacking in passion; the coolness Clooney often displays in his acting seems too much in evidence in this narrative, as if he thought the story alone resonated without any added dramatics.

And a remarkable story it is, based in fact, with a book by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter providing the inspiration for the script by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov. You can also find a great deal of information and photographs at the website www.monumentsmenfoundation.org.

In the waning days of World War II, it was well known that Hitler’s minions had been confiscating art from private collections (many those of Jewish families) and from museums and churches in France and Italy, for a planned museum, Nazis’ own collections or — in the case of artists whom Hitler disapproved — destroyed or sold outside Germany. All of the precious works needed to be found and returned to their rightful owners before they were lost forever or ruined. And there were threats besides the Germans, since many works were in war zones where both sides were more interested in defeating the enemy than saving art.

The salvation effort was not entirely successful. Indeed, not long ago a trove of some 1,200 works was found in the possession of the aged son of an art dealer who, as one German magazine put it, acquired them “under dubious circumstances in the Nazi era.”

But the saving that did occur was often in the hands of the “monuments men” — art experts, architects and others who knew what to look for, and who were instrumental in the saving of such priceless works as the Bruges Madonna, a Michelangelo sculpture, and the Ghent Altarpiece, a set of panels from the 15th century.

Clooney’s film includes both of those pieces in its fictionalized version of the Monuments Men story, which includes noticeably fewer people than were involved in the real effort and changes the names of the characters. For the film, the men are a small band reminiscent of those small-daring-band movies of the ’60s like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen; indeed, the movie as a whole has the feel of somewhat old-fashioned adventure, including in its stirring soundtrack. But it is not too far removed from fact; for example, Claire Simone — a French resistance member played by Cate Blanchett — is very closely modeled on the real-life Rose Valland.

The brave band in this movie includes Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray as American experts joined by a Brit (Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey) and a Frenchman (Jean Dujardin, The Artist) who work their way across Europe with the help of people on the scene like Simone and a German-speaking young soldier (Dimitri Leonidas).

Although they are not warriors — and at times find themselves at odds with the sterner military folks — the Monuments Men face many of the same risks. Not all make it to the end of the war. And they learn the feeling of being far from home and family, as is illustrated in a touching scene involving Murray’s character.

But as good as it can be at times, the movie tends to fall short at crucial moments. Some of the main characters are little more than sketches. While there is a lot of talk about the urgency of the task, Clooney as director fails to make that urgency felt in the presentation. And there is a limit to how often one can show men awestruck in the presence of a great treasure — before the impact of their awe diminishes. This is a movie that calls for respect more than real enthusiasm.

But Clooney seems less interested in awe and enthusiasm than in straight forwardly telling a story that may not be well known to most of its viewers. And in the tone of the piece, he is aiming directly at an older audience, one familiar with the cast and patient with deliberate storytelling. After all, the real monuments men were not youngsters. Smithsonian magazine said that, as part of the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories, or AMGOT, the monuments men were nicknamed Aged Military Gentlemen On Tour.

This is an admirable movie, then, in reminding moviegoers of middle-aged heroics and sacrifice — not a bad idea in the context of protecting ancient culture.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Twitter (@RHeldenfelsABJ) and Facebook. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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