DEFENDING THE MONUMENTS MEN
George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men opened in the UK to generally poor reviews a couple of weeks ago. The story was based on fact and followed seven men (later eight) who tried to recover billions of dollars worth of art stolen by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. The movie focused on one small group of these people. There were others on a similar mission but The Monuments Men followed the fortunes of just one group.
Even before the film opened in the UK, film journalists were sharpening their pencils to have a go at the film. One article criticised the movie for not acknowledging the contribution of one particular Englishman who had been part of this mission. When the film arrived, several pundits suggested that the film trod an uneasy path between humour and action. This was a narrative movie, not a documentary or a book. To tell the full story, it would have taken a factual film several hours.
Director Clooney sets out to achieve a number of things in about one hundred minutes.
(1) To draw the audience’s attention to the work of The Monuments Men.
(2) To emphasise the importance of the work of these men
(3) TO ENTERTAIN
The humour was there to remind us that, as important as this mission was, it was very much a side line in the final months of the war. The team comprised people who had dedicated their lives to the preservation of magnificent works of art. They were not soldiers and, inevitably they blundered their way across Europe in search of the stolen horde. Many of the quips are the result of an understandable nervousness amongst the group members. Some of the funniest moments centre around Matt Damon’s feeble attempts to speak French.
There wasn’t a great deal of action but plenty of exciting detective work as the Nazis raced to hide their haul from the advancing allies. There were a number of reminders of the dangers theses men faced as some of them found themselves behind enemy lines. There was also a touch of espionage as Cate Blanchett, initially jailed as a suspected French collaborator at the liberation of Paris, provides the final clues about the whereabouts of many of the priceless items. Glossy World War Two films often stand accused of ignoring the serious aspects of the war but Cooney deals with this cleverly. Their most gruesome discovery when they unearth the loot are thousands of gold teeth filling and, right at the end, Cooney himself conducts a brief interview with a captured SS man. The director/star does this in such a laid back way that it feels far more chilling than the table thumping that probably accompanied the interrogation of many of the black uniformed sadists.
The ending is slightly contrived, rather like the climactic airport scene in Argo. The men escape in the nick of time. This provided a satisfactory ending to a thoroughly entertaining film which introduced me to the work of these people and the importance of what they achieved. The Monuments Men was no classic (it wasn’t even Clooney’s best film, that was Good Night and Good Luck) but neither was it a turkey and captivated the sell out crowd in my cinema.