The Monuments Men: About Time

By Sandra Olmsted

Director George Clooney’s timely The Monument Men chronicles the real-life adventure of the American lead effort to save the cultural history of Europe as the Allied Forces pursued the retreating Nazi army across the continent. According to The Monuments Men Foundation website, the Monuments Men were a force of about 345 men and women representing thirteen nations who were mostly “museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. Their job description was simple: to protect cultural treasures so far as war allowed.”

Clooney’s version focuses on just eight 4-F, middle-age and/or infirm men, and although the characters are flat and underwritten, they are based on real people. As the film opens, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) convinces President Roosevelt that the art of Europe must be saved, but he doesn’t expect a commission to do it himself. Loosely based on George Stout, art conservationist at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Stokes first recruits James Granger (Matt Damon), an art restorer, whose bad French gets more play than his “bad heart.” Then Stokes adds successful Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and art historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). To represent the non-American Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) members, Stokes also recruits former British museum curator Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), who needs to redeem himself, and Paris art instructor Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin).

Although the Monuments Men know Hitler plans to fill his Fuehrermuseum with all the great works of the Europe, they were shocked when Hitler decrees the retreating Nazis must destroy the art that wouldn’t reach Germany. While Damon’s Granger tries to convince Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who is based on the real Rose Valland, to share her knowledge of the stolen art, the rest of the team splits up to protect specific works of art. Their sleuthing and their knowledge of European art serves them well, but it’s driver and translator Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a German-born Jew and now all-American soldier, who realizes that the cities to which they’ve traced the artwork share a common link. Meanwhile, the Russian Trophy Brigades hunt for Nazi art troves and have plan of their own.

Regrettably, Clooney and cowriter Grant Heslov defy the war film convention to focus on a small group’s bonding during war. Clooney’s sends his eight men unit in too many directions as smaller teams, which may or may not be historically accurate, but it is definitely not cinematic. Splitting up the story slows the film’s pacing, diffuses the tension, and makes sympathizing with the characters more difficult. If the story had stayed focused, scenes like a commanding officer refusing to sacrifice “boys’ lives for art could have been followed immediately by the destruction a historically significant but strategically important site, and confrontations as MFAA starts restoration and been historically accurate.

While the retreating Germans destroyed much more wantonly than the advancing Allies, the tension and suspense in Tea with Mussolini is much better when the old ladies stand up to the Nazis to protect an ancient tower and its frescoes than in Clooney’s film slow, preachy film. However, great history has to be told to live on, and Americans’ protection and return of this art make them honorable liberators not victors.

Hopefully, The Monuments Men will inspire firsthand revelations about still missing artwork plundered by the Nazis. Based on a book by Robert M. Edsel, The Monuments Men is rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking and runs 118 minutes. The Monuments Men, Columbia Pictures release, is in theaters now. Stay through the end credits to see photos of the real Monuments Men with some of the art they saved.

More of Olmsted’s reviews can be found at <>.

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