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Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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In The Monuments Men, the true story is oversimplified and the real members are underserved.

The Art of the Possible

The Monumunments Men take stock of their mission
The Monumunments Men take stock of their mission

In fairness, it’s not a story easily told, particularly in 2 hours. This is a monumental (pardon the pun) true story that would be better served in a David Lean-sized epic presented with the kind of cinematic artistry for which Lean was so well known. More recently, Anthony Minghella’s masterful adaptation of The English Patient could’ve served as a type of template for translating history, art and the written word into the language of cinema.

As it stands, there’s nothing remarkable about the presentation. Even worse, the very absurdity of the Monuments Men’s mission is glossed over in George Clooney’s breezy screenplay (co-written with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov (Good Night, and Good Luck) and based on the book by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter).

It’s about eight guys — primarily academics and civilian professionals — who are sent to scour an entire continent in an effort to save precious works of art, historically-significant buildings and monuments. The continent is Europe, embroiled in a little event known as World War II, and the art is to be protected — or rescued — from the Nazi’s clutches.

The book is a fairly engaging recounting of the mission, although a more scholarly and comprehensive examination of Hitler’s art obsession and the Resistance undermining his megalomania can be found in Lynn Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa, which also served as the basis for a feature-length documentary of the same title (which, in turn, was co-produced by Edsel).

One of the best parts of Edsel and Witter’s book is the stage setting, coming to terms with the ludicrously over-sized and diametrically under-staffed mission (even with some 200 Monuments Men actually scattered around Europe) and the can-do attitude of the chosen few. Their story really is about the art of the possible and, because of their efforts and those within the Resistance, the world has the Louvre, the Ghent altarpiece, the Madonna in Bruges, David in Rome and so many other priceless and irreplaceable treasures available for public enjoyment.

The Art of Storytelling

Originally set for release during the 2013 holiday season — and in time for awards consideration — The Monuments Men was delayed, so the story goes, because Clooney was having difficulty finding the right tone. The end result is a movie that’s rather tone deaf and imbued with a gung-ho atmosphere that at times seems more akin to Hogan’s Heroes than Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s a damn shame, because there really is an honorable epic of Oscar calibre here simply waiting to be properly told.

There are a couple scenes that stand out for their effectiveness in evoking the collision of war and home and the historical importance of the Monuments Men.

One involves a cold and dreary army camp with Nora Sagal’s rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sweetly playing through the PA system. The scene evokes the dichotomy between the cold bitterness of war and the glowing warmth of home and family.

Another finds Frank Stokes (Clooney) confronting Col. Wegner (Holger Handtke, Hart’s War) face-to-face about art provenance and misappropriation, putting Wegner in his place as an insignificant player who’s headed for the gallows while Stokes looks forward to heading home to enjoy his life and favorite deli back in New York City.

Unfortunately, the effective scenes are outnumbered by the klutzy.

The Art of Heart

While Clooney was a co-screenwriter, producer, director and star, at least there’s no sense whatsoever of this being a mere vanity project. It’s easy enough to see the filmmaker’s heart was in the right place, but the true heart of the story lies elsewhere.

Maybe that’s why too many scenes fall flat instead of flesh out the valor and the curator.

In particular, there’s a promising scene wherein James Granger (Matt Damon, Saving Private Ryan) and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth) meet for dinner, discussion, and documents swapping. Claire, a bookish assistant at the Jeu de Paume and a key member of the Resistance, turns into a French seductress and gently attempts to sway the happily married James into an extended soirée and some Parisian romance. It’s war time, it’s France. The scene almost works, there’s even an errant thought that maybe something’s going to pop in a totally unexpected, devilish Inglourious Basterds style.

But the scene ends with an awkward joke about the tie Claire gave James. Once again, the characters don’t feel like they’re reflecting the real men and women involved in the perilous game of Nazi hide-and-seek. Thematic elements have been added and names have been changed in an overt acknowledgement of the narrative jumble each caricature represents. But that’s also their limitation; as caricatures, they’re not all that relatable or compelling — and that’s something the reality of it all most certainly contradicts.

At least the movie ends on a pretty good note, taking stock of the Monuments Men’s work and two members who were killed while out in the field. Was it worth losing those lives? In the bigger picture of art history, most certainly they sacrificed themselves for a greater good. Even as the movie comes to a fitting conclusion, it would’ve been smart to add a coda acknowledging their work continues even today — in current war zones such as Iraq.