A Monument to its Actors’ Talents

The Monuments Men image from Chasing CinemaOnce in a while, you run across a movie that is so spectacularly brilliant, so flawlessly executed, and so breathtakingly beautiful, that it just blows your mind. This is not one of those movies.

Once in a while, you run across a movie that is such a spectacular failure in every way, that it is almost fascinating in how bad it is. This is not one of those movies, either.

Once in a while, you run across a movie that is just kind of “there”; it doesn’t leave you with any impression, good or bad, it’s just boring and forgettable. This is certainly not one of those movies.

No, The Monuments Men is a movie that’s pretty darn good. Not great, not amazing, but good. It isn’t without its flaws, but it is far from bad. One of the people I watched this film with put it best when he said, “It’s the kind of movie you would watch when you have your friends over.”

This movie was made by George Clooney‘s production company, Smokehouse Pictures, with help from the German film studio Babelsberg Studio, where most of the filming took place. It is based on Robert M. Edsel’s non-fiction book of the same name, which tells the story of a special Allied program during World War II that was tasked with protecting artistic and historic treasures in Europe, such as famous paintings, sculptures, and buildings. This was not an easy task at a time when it was considered “routine” for the warring nations to make cities and towns look like this:

The Blitz image from Angelfire

Making their task even more difficult, the Nazis had established a systematic program to find priceless artistic masterpieces in the countries they conquered, take those artworks by force, and ship them to Germany. As far as the United States, United Kingdom, and other western Allies were concerned, this was theft, and they intended to find those stolen artworks and return them to their rightful owners.

It’s a real shame that we don’t hear about these people in our history books, especially when you consider how much of the world’s greatest artwork and cultural achievements would have been lost or destroyed without their intervention, or the fact that these people often risked their lives to protect them. If I hadn’t known about this movie, I would almost certainly not have known about any of these events.

I get the impression that making this film was something of a passion project for George Clooney, as he is not only a star in this film, but also its director, co-writer, and co-producer. The film’s other stars include Matt Damon (Elysium, The Bourne Identity), Bill Murray (Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters), Cate Blanchett (Lord of the Rings), John Goodman (Roseanne, The Big Lebowski), Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), and Jean Dujardin (The Artist).

Yes, this is one star-studded cast, and it certainly feels like one. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. I could be wrong, but I get the impression while watching this movie that all of the actors were just having fun on the set, like they were all just sort of pitching in to help their buddy Clooney make his movie while enjoying each others’ company. They don’t feel like they are playing characters at all. I don’t even remember what each person’s name was supposed to be for the movie. It just felt like John Goodman was playing “John Goodman but in World War II”, Bill Murray was playing “Bill Murray but in World War II”, and so on. Having said that, though, they do all have great on-screen chemistry together. The way they react to their rather unusual situation is just great, and much of this film’s humor is just the personalities bouncing off of each other.

It’s a good thing that their rapport is so strong, as most of this movie is pretty much just that. This movie really doesn’t have much of an over-arching plot, and what story there is really doesn’t come together until the third act. Most of the movie is just a collection of scenes. Mind you, they are all very good scenes – they are well-constructed, memorable, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and sometimes quite emotional – but they just don’t feel like they are tied together very tightly. In many cases, scenes feel like complete little mini-stories in their own right.

Probably the thing that I liked the best about this movie is that it seemed to always take the high road. There is an opportunity for a steamy cheating scene, but the movie passes it up, choosing instead to not be distracted by a love triangle plot. It mentions the Holocaust but doesn’t dwell on it, and only touches on the subject in those areas that overlap with what the characters were trying to achieve, such as the fact that Jewish art dealers were specifically targeted by the Nazi plunder machine. This is a tightly-focused movie. It is about its characters and their mission, not lowest-common-denominator sex, violence, or gritty gloom.

I think the most appropriate word to describe this film’s tone is “romantic”. Not in the sense of Valentines Day love stories, but rather in the artistic sense of the word.

Appropriately enough.

Appropriately enough.

This film romanticizes these men and their mission, portraying this whole endeavor as some sort of great noble quest. This is a very nostalgic movie that draws from a long tradition of how awesome the soldiers who fought in World War II were. In this context, I feel that is probably the best way to go about making such a film, but I could see why that might not appeal to everyone.

Indeed, I feel that this is ultimately the sort of movie that you will love if you love its stars. If you don’t like, say, Matt Damon or George Clooney as an actor, this film won’t change your mind. If you do like these actors, though, you will appreciate the opportunity to see them do what they do best.

In summary, The Monuments Men┬áisn’t going to be blowing any minds, but it is still worth recommending if you love history or you love its stars. A great popcorn movie that is absolutely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it yet.