Matt Damon and George Clooney are back together in The Monuments Men, attempting to work their Oceans 11 charm on the re-telling of the true story of WWII-era soldiers retrieving stolen works of art from the Nazis (dang you, Hitler).
Like, I imagine, many people of a certain age, when I hear talk of Allied WWII soldiers retrieving priceless works of arts from the Nazi’s I instantly think of the season 7 episode of The Simpsons “The Curse of the Flying Hellfish.” That’s the one where Mr. Burns keeps trying to kill Abe Simpsons due to a contract the two signed during WWII in which the last surviving member of their regiment gets access to a cache of works of art they recovered from an abandoned building once held by the Nazis:
However, that was an episode about a group of soldiers who discovered the art and kept it a secret, locking it away as a retirement plan for whichever one of them survived the longest (as a nice touch, two of the soldiers died that very day from hauling the incredibly heavy crate of paintings). The Monuments Men, which was written and directed by George Clooney (his first such effort since 2011’s The Ides of March), is about a group of art experts put through basic training, sent into the war to recover and appraise stolen art, and doing stupid stuff like stepping on landmines because, well, they’re not real soldiers.
Here’s the trailer:
Just when you think they may have, after all this time, exhausted all possible stories which could be told about WWII, along comes The Monuments Men to prove you wrong. It is somewhat well-known that Adolf Hitler was a failed art student who had a really tough time dealing with rejection (poor Poland was the first to find that out in 1939). So, in addition to the obvious human costs of the Axis Powers’ assault on Europe there was also a systematic effort to exert complete cultural absorption via massive looting and hoarding of local works of art in occupied countries. Heck, the Germans did it to the Russians, and then the Russians did it right back to them at the end of the war.
As a result, the Allied forces created the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in 1943, in which Allied soldiers and civilians embedded with the soldiers were charged with maintaining monuments and retrieving stolen works of art. The basic story is that these people had no real business being so close to battle since they were mostly museum curators and art historians, and they ended up discovering the Germans had collected more art than they had ever dared dream in their worst nightmares.
Now, we finally get to see that story told on film, from the pen of Clooney and his usual writing/producing partner Grant Heslov as adapted from the non-fiction novel The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. Along with Clooney and Matt Damon, the cast includes John Goodman (who apparently never stops working), Bill Murray (he was FDR last year, this year he’s a WWII art historian – just pointing that out), and Cate Blanchett. Beloved Christopher Guest actor Bob Balaban is also on board as is The Artist star Jean Dujardin.
George Clooney is always reliable to deliver a charming if not astounding acting performance as is Matt Damon. However, for all of Clooney’s admirable quirkiness he is just as likely to star in a merely okay film (see: The Men Who Stare At Goats, The Ides of March, Intolerable Cruelty, The American, Burn After Reading, The Good German) as he is in something truly captivating (see: Syriana, Up in the Air, Good Night, and Good Luck).
He arguably hasn’t written/directed a truly great film since 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck, with 2008’s Leatherheads being let down by horribly misjudged casting (Renee Zellwegger made for an awwwwwwful screwball comedy heroine, and John Krasinski is great at smirking incredulously at cameras but struggles with anything more). 2011’s Ides of March suffered from thinking itself more profound than the material dictated. As such, The Monuments Men should not get an automatic rubber stamp just because Clooney stars, wrote, and directed.
That being said, it does look good. By my count, it’s Clooney and Damon’s 5th time acting in the same movie (Syriana, the three Oceans films, and The Monuments Men). If only they could have worked Brad Pitt into a small role, possibly as someone who is mysteriously always eating something ala his Oceans character. Plus, you add in Blanchett, Murray, Goodman, and Balaban and you have a stunningly strong ensemble. The big challenge will be with how the film balances the message of the importance and art and culture vs. “Holy crap, that guy just shot at me! Screw the art, I’d rather live.”
UPDATED: The Monuments Men was originally supposed to come out in the US on Dec. 18, 2013, just in time for Christmas. However, the studio ran away screaming from the crowded holiday and pushed Monuments Men back to come out Feb. 7, 2014, sacrificing its 2013 Academy Awards eligibility. It will roll out into international territories throughout the rest of February and into March.