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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Monuments Men review: saving private collections (and public art)

The Monuments Men green light George Clooney Matt Damon

MaryAnn’s quick take…
As jaunty as Jean Dujardin’s beret, but in a sincere, old-fashioned kind of way. It could almost have been rediscovered from the 1940s…
I’m “biast” (pro): love Clooney as an actor and a filmmaker; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I try to avoid hearing too much of other critics’ reactions to a film before I’ve seen it, but there was no avoiding the barrage of disappointment that came hurling over Twitter last week, as so many of my North American colleagues responded to The Monuments Men with a resounding “meh.” This was a disappointment to me, because I’d been so looking forward to this movie.

Well, now that I’ve seen it, I don’t know what the hell they’re all talking about, because this movie is fantastic.

Is it that my expectations had been so lowered that anything short of a disaster would have gotten a pass from me? I don’t think so, because I was sorta hoping for something like Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Ocean’s Eleven, and this certainly does not qualify. And yet I’m happy, because what we got pleases me even more. I wouldn’t have thunk it, but director George Clooney (The Ides of March, Good Night, and Good Luck.), who oozes snark as automatically as he breathes, has made an uncynical movie. Oh, it is as jaunty as the beret that Jean Dujardin’s (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Artist) French art teacher turned art hunter favors, but in a sincere, old-fashioned kind of way. This could almost be a movie rediscovered from the 1940s, and that’s no bad thing. It recaptures the urgent spirit of the time, the sense that everyone’s effort was needed to push back against Hitler’s total war.

This isn’t a war movie, though, not like we’re used to: it’s a detective story, a “treasure hunt,” as Hugh Bonneville’s (Twenty Twelve, Doctor Who) sole Brit on the team writes in a letter home, except “our prizes are Rembrandts and Rubens.” When Frank Stokes (Clooney) and his team of art historians, museum curators, and other experts — also including those played by Matt Damon (Elysium, Promised Land), Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson, Fantastic Mr. Fox), John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis, Monsters University), and Bob Balaban (Girl Most Likely, Howl) — arrive in Normandy after the Allied invasion, the Nazis are retreating… and they’re looting the Continent along the way, confiscating important artworks for the museum Hitler is building for himself and destroying the art Hitler doesn’t like (such as anything created by Jews, of course). We get a flip side of the typical war movie: we’re seeing the aftermath, the cleanup. The Normandy beach here is a quiet place, the battle over, and just over the dunes in the sprawling camp of Allied soldiers, they’re unloading simple white crosses from a truck. We see a Paris museum despoiled, a few empty frames left on otherwise empty walls. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating, this glimpse at what Hitler’s attempts to dismantle the history and culture of his enemies looked like — Nazis soldiers torching “degenerate” paintings made me cries tears of rage. It doesn’t bear thinking about, all the art that was lost. I cannot comprehend the mind that could conceive of this.

But Monuments Men forces us to contemplate it, even as its treasure hunters hop around Western Europe, following up on clues they hope will lead them to where all the stolen art is being hidden. Just this tiny sliver of the unfathomably enormous story of World War II is itself enormous: millions of works of art destroyed or stolen from multiple nations; real life “Monuments Men” who numbered many more than the handful we meet here, who are only loosely based on real people. But Clooney’s script, written with his frequent creative partner Grant Heslov, smartly focuses on a few pieces, and what they mean to the men who are seeking them: a marble sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary and the baby Jesus on display in a cathedral in Bruges, and the series of magnificent paintings that make up the altar in a church in Ghent. I’m an atheist about God, but art (not just movies) is my religion, and I was deeply moved by the unvarnished power Clooney found in the wartime stories of these pieces. I was even more deeply moved by the simple, elegant ways he found to connect the spirit of the historical, even academic stories of these pieces to the power of art, “important” and “unimportant,” that is around us all the time: Via Cate Blanchett’s (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Hanna) French museum worker, and how protectively close she holds her hard-won knowledge of where looted art is being hidden because she cannot believe that the Americans don’t want to take it all for themselves. Via Murray’s architect, spending Christmas 1944 in a snowy military camp with only Balaban and a bunch of anonymous GIs for company, receives the gift of a recorded Christmas song from back home.

Art isn’t a luxury. It’s a vital necessity, a comfort when we need it and a reminder of who we are. (Hitler knew that — that’s why he wanted to destroy it.) And it’s worth fighting for. The Monuments Men isn’t stuffy about it, and isn’t overly solemn about it… but it won’t brook any disagreement about it, either. It’s a very fine place for even an old-fashioned sort of movie to be.

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The Monuments Men (2014) | directed by George Clooney
US/Can release: Feb 07 2014
UK/Ire release: Feb 14 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated NIHTG (Nazis: I hate these guys)
MPAA: rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking
BBFC: rated 12A (contains moderate violence, bloody injury detail and scenes of smoking)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Sean H

    I guess I found it a little jingoistic/self-congratulatory and silly and PG13 and rah-rah-greatest-generation (again!). It’s wholesome, the acting is fine, the level of historical realism hasn’t been offensively manipulated. It is a bit smug and self-satisfied. Clooney is far from a groundbreaking auteur. And overall I feel it would have made a better documentary than an Oceans-11 style big-name Hollywood star-fest. Also, the quasi-comedic tone is tough to pull off and there isn’t a 3-dimensional character to be found. I guess it reminded me of sort of a blend of War Horse and Rendition. It’s pretty to look at but sentimental, and tells an “important” story but one which at the end of the day isn’t all that memorable or essential as a movie.

  • Tonio Kruger

    It’s a shame they don’t do double features anymore because I would love to see this film shown in the same theatre as John Frankenheimer’s 1964 classic The Train. For that matter, I would like to see MaryAnn’s response to that movie — but I doubt I ever will.

  • Kathy_A

    There are some excellent TV documentaries on the subject out there, but I think the best source material is the book The Rape of Europa, which deals with the subject of Nazi looting European art as a whole, giving Rose Valland (the woman whom Blanchett’s character is based on) a lot of credit for her paperwork tracing the art that went through her holding station during the Nazi occupation, tracing in detail the disappearance of the famous Amber Room from the USSR, and the recent reappearance of much of the artwork that was re-looted by the Soviets when they invaded Germany.

    I’m guessing that the movie doesn’t mention the fact that Rose Valland’s concerns over the Allies keeping what they find wasn’t entirely paranoia–the prime pieces that the Monument Men found ended up going on tour in the US before being returned to their owners, and there was a big debate over whether the Allies should actually keep what they had and not return it at all. And then there was the American soldier and his girlfriend (or wife? can’t remember which) who pilfered their own significant stash of art, silver, and gold objects before they were finally busted for theft.

  • RogerBW

    The main criticism I’ve been reading elsewhere is that there are too many separate stories, and not enough time for each. And people said that about Love, Actually too.

  • There is no mention of any of that.

    I would love for *Monuments Men 2* to be about chasing down the “souvenirs” that American GIs brought home with them…

  • I don’t see that at all.

  • RogerBW


  • I would love to be writing more and reviewing more. Find me more hours in the day. Find me money so I can hire an assistant to do all the nonwriting crap this site requires, which needs to be done but doesn’t need my voice.

    I’m doing the absolute best I can, and I’m getting pretty burnt out from it.

  • Kathy_A

    Two of my favorite “war souveniers” stories are both about photo albums. The first is mentioned in Band of Brothers, when one of Easy Company’s troop finds Hitler’s photo album at the Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgarden when they liberate the town. The Yank brought them home with him even though he wasn’t supposed to.
    The second I just learned about last week when watching a show on National Geographic channel about the Auschwitz Album, which contains the only known photographs of a deportation train arriving at a death camp. I’ve seen the photos on other documentaries, but had no idea the amazing story behind their discovery. A young Hungarian Jewish woman had been deported to Auschwitz with her family in mid-1944, but was separated out to be sent to the work camp while her entire family went to the gas chambers. By the end of the year, the Soviets were moving into Poland, so the SS guards moved those prisoners who were mobile further west. Eventually, she ended up in a camp in northern Germany when it was liberated by the Allies. Being ill, she was put into the infirmary that the Allies had converted from what had been the SS guards’ barracks.
    Well, she started looking through the drawers and closets of her room, when she found this photo album. Opening it up, she realized not too many pages into it that, hey, “there’s my rabbi! And there’s my grandparents!” Turns out the album was filled with photos from her train arriving at Auschwitz, an album that she found 400 miles away from Poland. The photographer had not only snapped pics of the train arriving, he then followed the people to their two destinations–those who had had their heads shaved and put into camp clothes, like the woman herself (yes, she saw a photo of herself with a shaven head), and those who were going to be gassed but had to wait in a grove of trees next to the chambers for their turn. These pictures included one of her two younger brothers.
    She brought the album home, sold glass plates made from them to a Jewish museum in Hungary to fund her immigration to the US, and when word got out to other Holocaust survivors about her picture album and people would show up looking for photos of their family, she always let them go through it and would even give pictures in the very rare instance of someone seeing a family member in her album. Finally, in 1980, she was persuaded to donate the album and its remaining photos to Yad Vesham in Israel.

  • That’s interesting stuff, but I was being ironic. Some important works of art that the Monuments Men were hunting were found back in the US, because soldiers had taken them home after the war.

  • Kathy_A

    I was just being geeky–I only found out about the Auschwitz Album last week, so I Must Share my knowledge with absolutely everyone!!
    Sorry about that; I do tend to go on a bit. Back to your regularly scheduled weekend in progress…

  • The main criticisms that I’ve read are covered in what Sean H. wrote in this thread.

  • This movie never appealed to me from the start. For one, I’m kind of tired of George Clooney. He plays one character in every movie. Himself. That head swagger of his makes me want to smack it out of him.
    I also couldn’t figure out from the trailers what they we’re going for. Sometimes comedy, sometimes drama, but it didn’t seem to fit together.
    Then there’s the “true story” aspect of it, which always bothers me about any movie based on a true story. Somehow I doubt they sent a big dude like John Goodman out there. They may not have been fighting, but still. Common sense.

  • Bob Boatman

    Hang in there, MaryAnn. You’re awesome. Ebert would have advised you to stick to it even if you aren’t being financially rewarded at the moment. You are at least spiritually happy, right? :) Your writing is tremendous, and the give and take afterwards is also worthwhile, except for guys like Tonio, who’d like you to go out and critique a 50 year-old movie.

  • bronxbee

    ebert also started his career as a *paid* critic… and was never out of work. he always was a salary man — if he’d had to write, manage, direct, produce and print his own reviews, just how rewarded would he have been? alas, the days of every newspaper having a paid critic are over and we’re all told we have to be more creative, and self-sustaining, and find ways to make a living. so maryann is. now people have to support that. one cannot live on praise alone.

  • Kathy_A

    I just got back from seeing this. Knowing as much as I do of the real story, I would give this film a solid B. I appreciate a decent WWII flick, and this was an interesting variation on the genre.

    I like the fact that Clooney went old-school in the style, keeping the cynicism at a minimum and giving us lots of little moments that I appreciated. My favorite was Bill Murray in the shower–that was very touching and wonderfully played by Murray. Some other moments could have used more punch–the driver meeting his neighbor lacked any impact. I preferred his busting the German captain.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Actually I was one of the few people who bothered to subsidize MaryAnn’s last effort at a subscription film review. And I meant my request to be taken as rhetorical as well. I know MaryAnn does not have the ability to respond to every request. In fact, we’re darn lucky that she responds to as many questions as she does. Then again, the film in question was reviewed here in Dallas by then local critic Matt Zoller Seitz. It’s theme is the exact opposite as Monument Men and I would have loved to have heard MaryAv

  • Tonio Kruger

    And there are many jobs out there that are even more thankless than that of “paid” film critic. I don’t blame MaryAnn for playing a bad hand as well as she does. But I’m still human enough to wax nostalgic for the days when things were better.

  • bronxbee

    i didn’t mean to imply that you were supportive, tonio — i happen to know that you are one of the subscribers… just saying what different world we live in from when ebert started out. if there were any justice, a large metropolitan newspaper or webcast or PBS station would be paying maryann a living wage so she could … you know, live.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I agree.

  • It’s hard to be spiritually happy when you lie awake at night worrying about money. It also makes it hard to concentrate on work.

    This site is 16 and a half years old, and has been pretty popular all that time. If I shouldn’t worry about being financially rewarded at this point, when should I start worrying?

    I also would like to critique a 50-year-old movie. But there’s even less interest in readers to support that than there is to support reviews of new films. (And I do know that Tonio has been a longtime supporter of my work. I wasn’t picking on him.)

  • He also, in later years, had a wife who was a tremendous professional assistant to him.

  • Maybe I can try to get to the movie you suggested as a classic for the “what to stream” posts…

  • Bob Boatman

    I’m writing you a check. I don’t have pay pal or any of that other stuff. Send me the address.

  • Dealing with subscriptions by check is really not ideal: it gives me more administrative work having to keep track of it manually.

    If you insist, however, you can email me at maryann@flickfilosopher.com and we can work out the details.

  • Bob Boatman

    I’m sending you $200. Maybe it will get the ball rolling. We can’t lose you.. you are a national treasure.

  • JIm Mann

    Like you, I am puzzled by the critical reaction to this film. Maybe it’s just letdown. The early buzz was that this would be an Oscar contender, a really great movie, and instead we just got a very good movie — solid, well done, and with several very nice performances, but not quite to the level some critics were expecting.

  • LJS

    I liked it, I didn’t love it. I’ve read the book and am familiar enough with WWII history to fill in various gaps. (Do they ever refer to Goering by name?) They changed a fair bit to make a compelling story — I wonder if they should have changed more to make it a better movie — you have cameos by Hitler and by Goering, but little payoff. I don’t think we even hear about Goering losing his loot at his castle. My husband hadn’t realized that it was Stahl who the Monument Men unmask at his country home. If you are going to fictionalize perhaps let Claire confront the arrested Stahl instead of just reading about him. Or perhaps introduce the Nazi who tries to destroy the Altausse mine earlier so the audience has more of an emotional reaction to his actions. One is intended to have an emotional reaction to preventing the Soviets from getting the art, but they weren’t built up enough either.
    It felt to me like the director was trying for some mix of documentary and “based on a true story” and missed the mark in the compromise.
    I find myself wondering what younger viewers to whom World War II is dusty history make of it. I had grandparents and uncles who served — many of them are no longer alive to tell stories to my young one’s generation.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    Just watched this last night in original English in Mulhouse, France. The audience size was decent for this theater and the reaction seemed positive. They seemed to love Matt Damon being squelched for his bad French. But it made me think of an element that doesn’t always get mentioned–what the audience brings to a film. There are some movies that meld so well with my own personal context that many flaws are forgiveable. I don’t know if that is the case for this film for natives of French Alsace, but I did feel very close to the scenery and context, including the art. Watching this story feels like looking around the edges of WWII to understand the enormity of the loss and of the efforts spent to counter it, where our own prior knowledge fills in interior details and makes it a better film.

  • b.s

    Are you kidding me? This was a terribly-made film. See The Train with Burt Lancaster ….

  • I am not kidding you. Please explain what is terrible about this movie.

  • bob leonard

    The Train was one of my favourite movies of all times…Monument Men was pathetic.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I’m starting to regret having mentioned The Train to begin with. After all, if all you have to say about The Monuments Men is “The Train was better,” you’re not really saying anything concrete about either movie save that you like one more than the other. The important question here is: WHY do you like one movie so much more than the other? If you can’t answer that question, there is little point in your commenting.

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