The Monuments Men (2014)

Last night I went to see a film that it won’t surprise people I went to see. I love the time period it is set in (WWII) as well as half the cast (I literally grew up with Bill Murray and John Goodman films and lets not get into Matt Damon!) I saw two distinctive trailers for the film, one that set it up very much as a comedy film and one that gave it a bit of an edge, so going into the film I wasn’t too sure what I was going to expect to see.

(Many spoilers below just so you know….)

Lets start by saying that it really wasn’t just a comedy, there were plenty of moments that were comedic but the tone was every bit as respectful and sad as you’d expect a movie set in France/Germany during the closing stages of WWII to be. The cast played it perfectly and I can honestly say I spent a good deal of the film close to tears.

The film is based on a true story,, that of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program. I knew little about the group before the film which is why I liked the idea of the film, it is like Valiant in my eyes. I like seeing those little bits of the war that you never really learn about or hear about, its easy to just think that all the museums and galleries were just left but it is obvious if you think about it that the destruction never cared where it was. In a war zone you don’t have someone to sit there and tell you where not to bomb because its culturally important. Seeing that there were people that cared about what happened to our cultural histories was a good reminder of just how many different groups there were during the war.

The film obviously dramatizes the whole thing, a group of what was about 300 people are taken down to a core of 7. These 7 are then split when they reach mainland Europe, Matt Damon’s James Granger went to Paris where he met Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who had worked at the museum in Paris and was being held as a collaborator after the Nazi’s had left. It is up to him to try and convince a war weary art lover that his group are bringing the art back to their homes not just stealing them for themselves.

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) ends up going on his own following the army as they liberate France and Germany. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) are much more the comic relief characters, Campbell very much knows how to get under Savitz skin, but they form an unlikely friendship when the hardships of the war start hitting home. They are the two that find the Van Eyck Alterpiece in Ghent gone. Their friendship blooms when they get their Christmas gifts from home and when Campbell is in the shower Savitz finds a radio-graph to play Campbell’s message from home over the loud speakers (yes I did cry!) Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) are teamed up perfectly leading to the death of Clermont after being caught in crossfires, seeing the helplessness of Garfield trying to get help and the army finding him holding Clermont’s lifeless body in the morning was heartbreaking.

Then you have Hugh Bonneville. Oh my Gods how I cried! Playing a character called Donald Jeffries its his job to go and protect the Madonna in Bruges, he dies trying to protect it. His story is never made completely obvious (he escaped going to prison for doing something and is a drunk) but his death sparks a need to find the Madonna in Stokes that really is the only narrative part of the story that is easy to get hold of and follow.

The film really is a love story to the art and the people that care for art, I have to admit there isn’t much of a story in it, things just kind of happen, but it is a lovely film. Easy to follow with some geniuinely lovely moments, some downright heart wrenching moments and some great laugh out loud moments. It is very respectful to the time period, not making it out that it was some sort of a jolly around Europe, it showed the hardships of war not only to others (a scene where Stokes and his German driver Sam (Dimitri Leonidas) bring in a wounded solider just for the wound to be too much to help, Sam being left holding the dying solider’s hand) but also to the team (the death of two of their members) and to others who survived occupation (Simone worked in the museum, she was used and helped the resistance, her brother was killed by the Nazi’s but after they left stripping the museum she was arrested for being a collaborator and by the time Granger found her no wonder she didn’t trust people!) as well as our cultural history.

There was an underlying story of “is art worth giving your life for?” and the answer to these men were always yes. It was worth giving their life for.

It makes you ask the question of whether any form of art, or anything of cultural significance is important enough to fight for.

An interesting question to ponder.

Stokes is very much of the mind that no matter what happens to humanity, to any country, as long as they have their cultural identity still in tack they will get over any atrocity, and I think that is a good point. No matter what happens in the world it is the things that make you… YOU that really matter. To see the amount of work that the Nazi’s had taken, the attitude of “if we can’t have it no one can” makes you realise just how important these things are. There were many well crafted speeches (mainly given by Clooney) about the worth of our cultural heritage which I think will provoke people to think more about what makes their culture unique. It is a different way of thinking about war, the main focus is always and should always be on the life that has been lost, but when you rebuild that city, that country, there is something always missing. That fingerprint from a bygone era, the works of art we all know and love…

Anyway… Back to the film.

I do think there is a minor problem with the story. It was simple yes, they went there to retrieve art, there is never a point in the film that hasn’t been explained away, but there is a detached feeling to the group. Maybe it is that there wasn’t enough time to develop different angles to the film, for instance their first missions they all end up meeting Nazi’s (or kids… Take your pick) and ending up in situations they weren’t really trained for. A lot more could have been said of the scene of Campbell and Savitz having a cigarette with the young German solider in the woods, the scene when Clarmont dies, whist sad, came out of nowhere. Why did he really want to stop in the middle of the rain to look at a horse? The story is very linear, they go to achieve something and they do it, but the characters never really have much of a chance to shine. Jeffries death is sad as we are hearing the letter he wrote to his father just before he’s died and we are being told whilst he’s being shot how important the Madonna is to him, but without that monologue over the top of his death we wouldn’t have been connected to him. The characters were only connecting to me because the actors are ones that I love. The actual story was trying to say too much at once, and the only real story you got behind was them trying to find the Madonna.

I mean obviously there is the main POINT. Going over there to save the paintings, but they were a weird bunch of men and you never got a sense of WHY they’d be the people that were chosen.

It doesn’t stop the story from being lovely. The actors really save the story, without such a beloved cast I think I would have struggled to care about them, as it was even though there was never a scene that showed why Savitz cared so much about the Alterpiece when he was in the final mine, with the Russian’s bearing down on them, you CARED that he was doing something to find the last panel, and you couldn’t help but smile all giddy like when Campbell accidentally realises they are using it as a table.

It was that and probably the use of so many stirring speeches that really made the film a true roller-coaster. The story might have been weak but the characterization was suffocating (in a good way) and made you appreciate the film so much more.

I would say this is a film that people should go and see, though you might have gotten the wrong idea by the trailers. I do think it is a film that could be overlooked and that is very sad because even though it might not be as strong as some or as dramatic it is a very lovely film with a lot to it.

I personally loved it and plan on seeing it again before it leaves the cinema, it is one of the best films I’ve seen in a while and really gives a new perspective on a subject that I’ve been taught about since I was small enough to be taught. It is interesting and different and for a change I really liked George Clooney in it… Even if he’s just playing George Clooney…. Yeah I have a thing about Clooney. As you all probably know I love a good piece of character drama and this is what the film did perfectly.

Out of the three films I’ve seen in 2014 so far (two of which are 2013 left overs…) this would slot between the wonders of the Hunger Games and the slight disappointment (SLIGHT) of The Hobbit Desolation of Smaug. I really need to visit the cinema more often and keep a list of which film slots in where!

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