Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Monuments Men (Columbia, 20th Century Fox, Smokehouse, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched The Monuments Men, a film which got a lot of hostile reaction from critics and online reviewers alike and didn’t last long in theatres, but which turned out to be quite entertaining. The film was based on a real-life squad of about 350 art experts who were attached to the Allied forces in Europe during World War II to find out what was happening to the art the Nazis were expropriating from Jewish collectors as well as musea in the occupied countries, do what they could to recover it, and also keep the Allied armies from destroying precious works of arts and the buildings that either contained them or were themselves historical aesthetic treasures. The movie starred and was directed and co-written by George Clooney, who cast himself as head of a seven-person squad of “monuments men” moving through Belgium during the period between D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, after various stolen artworks in general and two pieces in particular: the altarpiece at Ghent, Belgium — described in the dialogue as the central artwork of Roman Catholic culture (which makes one wonder what Clooney and his co-writer and co-producer, Grant Heslov, think the Sistine Chapel and all that other stuff in Vatican City is) — and Michaelangelo’s statue of the Madonna and Child in Bruges, also in Belgium.

The film lasts 118 minutes — actually relatively short for an “A”-list star vehicle these days — and suffers from a couple of problems that usually bother me more than they did here: an uncertainty of tone between drama and comedy (the bouncy main-title theme by Alexandre Desplat sounds more like the music to the 1963 film The Great Escape than anything you’d have heard in a movie about World War II while the war was still going on, and there are long gag scenes like the one in which Matt Damon’s character has stepped on a land mine and the other monuments men have to figure out how to get him off safely) and intensely past-is-brown cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. Nonetheless, it’s a well-done film, exciting and suspenseful, with a good team of actors — like other actor-directors, from Stroheim and Welles to Eastwood and Redford, Clooney knows how to get quiet, understated performances from his players — and a script that, though perched uneasily between the grimly serious tone of 1940’s war movies and the ironic, campy approach of ones made in the 1960’s, does tell a compelling story and make, if not the most of it, at least enough for a good movie. The Monuments Men we see in the film are team leader Frank Stokes (Clooney), James Granger (Damon), Richard Campbell (a grimly out-of-shape Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and the two who, being non-Americans, are considered expendable and die before the film ends: Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), who’s killed when the vehicle containing him and one of the others is fired on by a German sniper who turns out to be a boy (Samuel Fuller would have been pleased!); and Donald Jeffries (a Brit played by British actor Hugh Bonneville), who joined the Monuments Men after losing his career as a university arts professor to some sort of scandal that Clooney and Heslov never quite explain to us except to say it was alcohol-fueled. Jeffries is the most dramatically interesting of the Monuments Men, but the film’s acting honors are taken by Cate Blanchett in what’s by far the most ambiguous and multi-dimensional role in the film — as Claire Simone (patterned after the real French art expert Rose Valland, who like her movie counterpart secretly kept a detailed ledger of all the great artworks in France the Nazis had looted, which when the Monuments Men started recovering things proved invaluable to let them know what they had found and what was still missing).

The Monuments Men does a pretty good job portraying how the professional military men who had to deal with these art historians bumbling around in “their” army must have felt — in one scene a unit commander tells them he’ll be damned if he’s going to write a letter home to some grieving mother telling her her son died because some art historian told him not to take out a church tower — and, as in The Longest Day and some of the more “serious” World War II films since, the characters speak the languages they would in fact speak instead of suggesting “Frenchicity” or “Germanicity” by speaking English with fractured accents. The film also manages to get a lot of suspense out of its situations — by the end of the film (and the war) the team is racing against time not only to get the art before the Germans do (Hitler has issued his so-called “Nero Order” that in case he dies or Germany loses the war everything of value in the country is supposed to be destroyed — he really did issue orders like this but Albert Speer managed to keep most of them bottled up within the Nazi bureaucracy and so they never got out to the people who were supposed to execute them, which is the main reason why when he was tried at Nuremberg Speer got a 20-year prison sentence instead of the death penalty) — and we find ourselves enough in tune with the film’s philosophy that it’s genuinely tragic when a group of Germans burn a stash of art with flame throwers before the Monuments Men can get to it — but also to make sure they reach the art before the Russians do. It’s established that the Russian Army is looting the German art stashes and taking the stuff home with them as what they call “reparations” — and indeed much of the historic art of western Europe ended up behind Soviet lines as World War II ended and the Cold War began. Making the Russians secondary villains is a bit of a surprise for someone with as “liberal” a reputation as George Clooney (the man whose film Good Night, and Good Luck largely stopped — at least for now — the American Right’s attempt to rehabilitate Senator Joe McCarthy), but it works effectively as drama. It also adds weight to the dilemma faced by Blanchett’s character, who’s convinced the Americans have come to her not to help repatriate France’s stolen art treasurers but to grab them for the U.S. — something she tells flat-out to Granger, who is also the recipient of her invitation for him to have sex with her even though he protests that he’s not only married, he’s a “good husband.”

Even the past-is-brown photography didn’t bother me that much because it was clear Clooney and Papamichael wanted this film to look as much like Old Masters’ paintings as possible — an effect they achieved surprisingly well, which added weight and visual interest to the movie — and I was also amused that for the film’s tag scene, showing Clooney’s character visiting the church in Bruges in 1977 to see the Michaelangelo Madonna and Child his team recovered, instead of having his makeup people slather him in age makeup to make him look artificially older, he cast his own father, Nick Clooney, as the older version of himself. It’s an interesting reversal on the practice of stars having their real-life children play their younger selves on screen (Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality, Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress, Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments) and a nice touch even though I’ve always felt sorry for Nick Clooney in that he’s always stood in the shadow of a famous relative: first he was Rosemary Clooney’s brother and how he’s George Clooney’s dad! The rating The Monuments Men got from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America — the successors to the Production Code Administration — was also fascinating: a PG-13 “for some images of war violence and historical smoking” — the latter amusingly shown in a sequence in which one of the team is undergoing a medical exam and both doctor and patient are puffing away like chimneys as the exam progresses! It seems odd The Monuments Men didn’t do better at the box office because the issues it deals with are still “live” even 70 years after the end of the war; the heirs of Holocaust victims and other Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and piracy are still bringing suits to recover artworks stolen from their families by the Nazis and since either put up for sale for huge amounts or acquired by respectable musea and displayed either in ignorance or willful disregard of their sordid past.