Critics and audiences applauded 2011's The Artist for its homage to the early days of cinema. What made the film so engrossing was not only its story about the transition from the silent era to talkies, but its adoration and commitment to honoring the look and feel of the time. While there's certainly other examples throughout the medium, George Clooney's The Monuments Men stands out as another triumph; telling the story of a group of art enthusiasts who risk their lives to save grand works of art all over Europe duringWorld War II.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, who convinces President Eisenhower to approve his bold mission, and gathers up the best people for the job. Rounding out his team are the art historians and architects played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban and The Artist himself, Jean Dujardin. After a brief trip to England for some basic training (emphasis on the "basic") the team sets off across the English Channel to France where word reaches the team that Hitler is using men to haul all the important works and hide them in anticipation for his own museum. The team splits up to cover more ground, but inside Bruges, alone, Donald Jeffries (Bonneville) is killed trying to protect Michelangelo's Madonna and Child from the Nazis that Hitler has tasked to steal.
Realizing a man has died for their mission weighs heavily on all involved. What is one man's life compared to the value of preserving the world's culture? They ask themselves this very question and it becomes abundantly clear they would all, if put in the very situation that Donald Jeffries was in, risk their lives to protect these treasures for future generations to enjoy as much as generations past.
The Monuments Men has a lot to offer. While it's a bit of slow-burner, this true historical story combined with the chemistry of the cast and characters keeps the audience invested. And while we are dealing with the tough subjects that were very much a part of the war, the film manages to weave comedy with some genuinely touching scenes. A highlight of the film deals with John Goodman's and Bob Balaban's characters run in with a young, lone German soldier. These monuments men weren't there to kill, though they would have all certainly given a limb for an encounter with ol' Adolf, so instead they all sit down and smoke a cigarette before going their separate ways.
I like to think that when Clooney decided this would be his next directing effort, that he set out to tell this lesser-known story in relevance to how the real monuments men would have seen it in the early 1950's at their local movie theatre. Because aesthetically, aside from being filmed in the crisp color of today's technology, Clooney's direction allows this film to stand tall among the many World War II films of that time. In the end, The Monuments Men is a film about protecting art while simultaneously preserving it. [A-]
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