Friday, February 7, 2014

The Monuments Men: An unfinished sculpture

The Monuments Men (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for relatively mild war violence, and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.14

What a disappointment.

Despite the considerable charm of George Clooney and his fellow scene-stealers, this is a flat and uninvolving film.

Knowing that time is running out, Stokes (George Clooney, foreground) and Granger
(Matt Damon, right) scramble to protectively wrap artworks prior to moving them to
safety. They're assisted by, background from left, Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), Garfield
(John Goodman) and Savitz (Bob Balaban).
The fault lies with the graceless script, which leaves the impression that we’re watching the Reader’s Digest condensed version of a much longer miniseries. This two-hour film dips only briefly into a dozen or so potentially fascinating incidents, any one of which could have been expanded into a taut, exciting narrative; as it is, we get only the “calm” bits, leaving the impression that all exciting scenes were confiscated and dumped elsewhere.

Clooney deserves the blame; aside from starring and producing, he also directed and co-wrote the script with longtime colleague Grant Heslov. They’ve done a poor job of adapting the 2010 nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.

Edsel also co-produced the 2006 documentary, The Rape of Europa, which covered the same territory in a vastly more satisfying manner.

Part of the problem is Clooney’s apparent desire to transplant the droll Ocean’s Eleven vibe into this grim World War II setting, while also conveying the barbaric behavior of Nazis who cheerfully practiced human and cultural genocide. It’s a bit jarring to smile at some witty banter between Bill Murray and Bob Balaban at one moment, and then, in the next, be confronted by barrels containing gold fillings extracted from the teeth of thousands of holocaust victims.

Mostly, though, I lament the utter absence of suspense. This is a fascinating, fact-based story that should have kept us at the edge of our seats. Clooney’s film, however, is a jokey affair that meanders throughout Western Europe: more travelogue than drama.

The saga begins in 1943, when Harvard art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) briefs President Roosevelt on the pressing need for the Allies to avoid destroying European civilization, in their efforts to save it. By this, Stokes means that more care must be taken to preserve the cultural heritage of these various countries: their art and museums; their churches, cathedrals and synagogues; their architectural marvels.

As Edsel mentions, in the press notes, the Allies very nearly destroyed, entirely by accident, da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in August 1943.

Roosevelt signs off on this plan, but only to a limited degree. Stokes is allowed to hand-pick a motley crew of aging art experts, gathered under the code name “Monuments Men,” and somehow all of them survive basic training en route to their assignments in Europe.

Clooney’s character, Stokes, is based on art historian George Stout, head of the conservation department at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, who in fact was on the front lines during the war, helping to rescue countless cultural treasures. Stokes is joined here by:

• James Granger (Matt Damon), inspired by James Rorimer, later director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art;

• Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), inspired in part by architect Robert Posey, who was embedded with Patton’s Third Army and eventually was awarded France’s Legion of Honor, and Belgium’s Order of Leopold;

• Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), modeled after Lincoln Kirstein, an American impresario, art connoisseur, author and eventual co-founder of the New York City Ballet;

• Walter Garfield (John Goodman), inspired by famed St. Louis sculptor Walker Hancock;

• Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a French Jew and Marseilles art dealer; and

• Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), a disgraced British soldier grateful for this second chance to make a difference.

The team’s unofficial eighth member is Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a young soldier recruited by Stokes for his ability to drive and speak German. Epstein is based on Harry Ettlinger, a young German Jew who fled with his family to the United States in 1938, enlisted at 18 and, shortly after his 19th birthday, joined the actual Monuments Men.

I mention all this historical detail by way of confirming the degree to which, in this particular case, truth isn’t merely stranger than fiction; it’s far more amazing than most people likely would believe. And while Clooney’s film doesn’t precisely trivialize these events, they’re certainly compressed to an unfortunate degree.

We’re left with the impression that these eight people — and one plucky Parisian woman — orchestrated this highly unusual rescue operation all by themselves. In reality, the true “Monuments Men” were a few hundred men and women — curators, archivists, artists and art historians — from 13 nations.

OK, yes; all movies condense the many to the few, so that we viewers can better identify with an accessible handful of characters. This tactic certainly enhances the entertainment value, particularly when our heroes are subdivided for specific missions.

Campbell and Savitz end up working together most of the time, the former constantly winding up the latter; Balaban is perfect as the stoic, put-upon foil for Murray’s dry, deadpan humor. At the same time, the bond between these two men is soul-deep, and best expressed during an interlude when Savitz surprises Campbell with an unexpectedly kind gesture: one of the occasional times that Clooney’s juxtaposition of quiet humor and unexpected pathos does work.

The cheerful Clermont, in turn, partners with the brash, often clumsy Garfield. Dujardin and Goodman worked together in The Artist, and it’s just as much fun to see them here. Dujardin works his winning smile to maximum effect, while Goodman blusters his way through any obstacle.

Jeffries, somewhat in contrast, is an entirely serious character. Bonneville, easily recognized from television’s Downtown Abbey, layers his flawed military man with all sorts of emotional depth. Jeffries is determined not to waste this chance at redemption, and he confronts this destiny when fate grants him the opportunity to save Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna from the advancing Nazis.

The most complex interior story, however, involves Damon’s Granger and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), the latter inspired by Rose Valland, an employee at Paris’ Jeu de Paume Gallery. Claire is granted her own back-story: introduced during the occupation of France, and terrorized by Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi), the Nazi commander in charge of the museum where she works.

As the war progresses and the Allies push into France, the Nazis flee, taking much of Paris’ prized artworks. Granger senses that Claire could help track their movements, but she’s unwilling; in her mind, the Americans are just as likely to “save” all the art for their own museums, back in the States.

Blanchett, capably embracing her role, looks and sounds more French than the French themselves. As with Bonneville’s Jeffries, Claire is a fully grounded “straight” character; more than anybody else in this film, via her interactions with Stahl, she personifies the angry defiance, against hopeless odds, of the French citizens who loathed the Nazi invaders.

Damon, in turn, plays Granger as a devoted family man not entirely comfortable in his surroundings, who — despite an abiding attachment to his wife back home — finds it hard to resist Claire’s allure and lonely charm.

On the ground, Clooney’s Stokes is mostly a scoutmaster: the team leader who assembles his troops, sends them into the various fields and supplies expository detail — both to his men, and to us — as needed. Indeed, Clooney remains in lecture mode throughout much of this film, whether briefing Roosevelt, early on, or reading sections of key correspondence aloud, in voice-over. It’s a somewhat lazy method of conveying dramatic impact.

The film’s building tension derives less from events on the ground — indeed, most of our characters’ various successes seem remarkably easy, which obviously wasn’t the case in real life — and more from the ticking clock. In March 1945, with the war going against him, Hitler issued what became known as the “Nero Decree,” which mandated the destruction of the German infrastructure, to prevent its use by Allied forces: a decree many Nazi fanatics interpreted to include the destruction of their purloined art.

At the same time, the advancing Russian army, infuriated by the heavy losses suffered along the eastern front, are living down to Claire’s worst expectations: They’re keeping any recovered cultural artifacts as “spoils of war.”

Other details are presented rather hazily. Initially, Stokes and his team get no support from Allied commanders who aren’t about to risk their men to save some church. And yet Stokes never seems to have any trouble scavenging necessary supplies, and at some point it’s also clear that the Monuments Men have, in fact, won the cooperation of whole platoons that assist in various salvage and rescue operations. It would have been nice for the script to give at least token lip-service to this change of heart.

And that cuts to the core of this film’s major failing. The droll, often frivolous charm of star turns aside, The Monuments Men too frequently feels slapdash and ill-conceived: a warm-up, perhaps, for a much better movie.

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