Judge Erich Asperschlager is a monumental man.
"Do you think thirty years from now anyone is going to remember that these men died for a piece of Art?"
Some movies are based on true stories, and some are "based on true stories." The Monuments Men is the latter. Co-written by Grant Heslov and director George Clooney, the film is based on the Robert Edsel book of the same name. It contorts the real Allied "Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program" who protected and recovered stolen art during World War II—boiling down the accomplishments of several hundred people to a group of seven mostly Americans who singlehandedly take on Hitler and his art thieves. It's a fascinating bit of lost history told in the most pedestrian way possible, and now it's available on Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
As World War II draws to a close, a team of artists and academics are sent in to recover art stolen by the Nazis and to stop the collateral destruction of Europe's most important buildings. Led by Frank Stokes (George Clooney, Gravity) these "Monuments Men" include Matt Granger (Matt Damon, Elysium), Walter Garfield (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey), Richard Campbelll (Bill Murray, Rushmore), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban, Moonrise Kingdom), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin, The Artist), with the assistance of a young German translator (Dimitri Leonidas, Animals) and a French curator (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) who might be the key to finding the biggest stash of stolen masterpieces.
There's too much talent involved to justify how dull The Monuments Men is. Every so often the actors and historical twists break the monotony, but it's remarkable how low the stakes seem to be for a movie about a wartime treasure hunt. The problem begins with the basic premise. Clooney's Stokes convinces FDR via slideshow presentation to let him go to into wartime Europe to save its great art: buildings, frescoes, sculptures, paintings. I like Art at as much as the next former Art major and still life painter. The goal of the Monuments team is noble. We would be a great deal poorer as a society had the SS been allowed to steal or destroy the great artistic achievements of the West.
Clooney undermines the nobility of the task by overselling its importance. His impassioned speeches on behalf of Art coupled with the film's reluctance to focus on the human cost of war adds up to the worst kind of Hollywood navel gazing. The Monuments Men isn't just about the importance of Art. It's about the importance, and self-importance, of movies.
There are plenty of reasons to expect The Monuments Men will be good. Just look at the top-heavy cast, an Oceans Eleven-style embarrassment of acting riches that includes George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville. If only they were given something interesting to do. Character development is limited to shorthand exposition. There isn't enough time spent on any one character to get to know them, or care what happens.
The biggest problem with the ensemble cast is that Heslov and Clooney split them up for most of the film. We see Stokes assemble his artistic Avengers, they get together for a meeting—the film's second slide show in the first half hour—and then they go their separate ways. The film improves in the final third, with Stokes' men racing the Nazis as the war comes to a close. By then, it's too little too late.
It's too bad because The Monuments Men is gorgeous. Clooney reportedly charmed his all-star cast, getting them to take pay cuts to keep the budget to a modest $70 million. The money's all on the screen. From the costumes and reproductions of classic art to the on-location shooting, the period detail is stunning in this "mastered in 4K" 2.40:1/1080p Blu-ray transfer. The rich colors and sharp details are a taste of what may come if Sony's ultra-HD gamble pays off. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is full and capable, mixing dialogue, the surround sounds of war, and Alexandre Desplat's peppy if uninspired score.
The Monuments Men (Blu-ray) arrives in a set that includes a DVD and digital copy, with the following bonus features, the first three of which are Blu-ray exclusives…
• Deleted Scenes—The brief "Seeking Saint-Pierre" (0:52) and "Attempting a Rescue" (1:15) come from an excised subplot about Balaban and Bonneville trying to save a historical church from Allied attack.
• "In Their Own Words" (12:12)—A peek at the real history, featuring interviews with men and women who were part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program. Their stories about the struggles against Nazis and Allied bureaucracy make me wish their story had been made into a better movie.
• "A Woman Amongst the Monuments Men" (4:24)—The story of Rose Valland, on whom Cate Blanchett's character was based.
• "George Clooney's Mission" (5:11)—A look at Clooney and his directorial style, as told by his actors/co-stars.
• "Marshaling the Troops" (7:55)—Profiles and general appreciation of the movie's big stars.
The Monuments Men is a puzzler. Despite all the pieces of a rip-roaring Hollywood adventure—and a gorgeous hi-def transfer—it never comes together as a cohesive whole. It's a war film with all the nuance of a newsreel, suffering from a wasted cast and a meandering episodic plot that clicks too late to save the day. The real story of the soldiers and art historians who toiled during World War II to save the finest Western Art is worth telling. If only this movie told it better.
I don't know what Art is, but I know what I don't like.
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