During WWII, there was a group of soldiers and civilians who scoured Europe in order to "safeguard historic and cultural monuments from war damage, and as the conflict came to a close, to find and return works of art and other items of cultural importance that had been stolen" (quote from Wikipedia). This was something that had never been done before in war; in the past it had almost always been "to the victor belong the spoils." However, the Allies (not including Russia) realized that the preservation of art and culture was part of what they were fighting to protect. To make a better future, they wanted to save, protect, and preserve the past. Some of the undertakings of a few of the Monuments Men were told in the 2009 book THE MONUMENTS MEN and that book is what formed the basis for the movie THE MONUMENTS MEN.
Directed and co-written by George Clooney, THE MONUMENTS MEN follows a group of artists as they travel through Europe in an attempt to save and protect works of art and return those pieces to their rightful owners. Clooney stars in the movie as Frank Stokes. Stokes petitions President Roosevelt to let him assemble a group of artists and scholars that will be sent to Europe to protect works of art, architecture, and items of historical importance from destruction and return stolen items to their rightful owners. He recruits his good friend James Granger (Matt Damon) to assist him with his efforts. Together the two men round up the rest of their troop: Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). After going through basic training in England and arriving in France a month after D-Day, the group enlists Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a German Jew who fled to America with his family as a child, to be their translator. The team splits off to different parts of the continent and while in Paris Granger meets Claire Simon (Cate Blanchett) who eventually provides him with key information to finding and retrieving lost artifacts. It all becomes a hunt against time as it becomes clear that Germany will lose the war, but the stakes are raised as the Russians refuse to return any stolen goods, claiming them as restitution for the twenty-million people the war cost them.
The acting in the movie is well done. Clooney and Damon portray characters that seem similar to other characters they have played before. All the lead cast gets at least one big moment to shine in this piece. However, I was particularly impressed by Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Cate Blanchett. Balaban's Preston Savitz is the eldest member of the group and has a wonderful dry sense of humor. The pairing of Balaban and Bill Murray was genius. Murray also has a moving solo scene that illustrates once again that Murray isn't just a comic actor, but a fine dramatic one, too. Meanwhile, Blanchett fills her role with all kinds of mesmerizing actions and movements. She's a pure delight to watch.
I enjoyed THE MONUMENTS MEN. Having read the book prior to seeing the film, I was surprised at how many of the stories from the book actually made it into the movie. There are some scenes that are added for dramatic effect. There are also certain events and people that have been condensed to make the story more cinematic, but overall the movie stays close to the source material. The one big thing I was surprised about were the names of the people in the movie: almost all of the major characters in THE MONUMENTS MEN are based upon real people, but for some reason they are given different names in the movie.
The movie never steers away from the importance of the mission these men have undertaken. The audience is reminded of it several times by different characters throughout the film. However, the film also has a comic tone to it, which is somewhat surprising for a war movie. The comic tone doesn't take away from the seriousness of the subject matter, however. Nor does the film shy away from the real dangers of war. However, there are some who might find the dual comic-dramatic elements of the film to be confusing and, perhaps, even inappropriate. This shouldn't be the case: life is often tragic and comical at the same time. Tragedy and comedy might be opposites, but they are not mutually exclusive.
Overall, THE MONUMENTS MEN is an entertaining film that brings to light an important aspect of WWII history that is often overlooked. It's lighthearted, but doesn't glass over the risk and tragedy of war and it's a great reminder that the past should be saved in order to make the future worth living.