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It is difficult to find a film that teaches about the horrors of WWII without dragging the audience through the gruesome and grisly details of Schindler’s List or Valkyrie. Some try, like The Book Thief that rehearses the conflict from the perspective of a German orphaned child who tries to insulate herself by reading. War Horse also tempers it message by telling it from the stance of a young soldier and his mount.
Now The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, tackles the events from the view of a group of art curators, historians, architects, archaeologists and archivists commissioned to save Europe’s fine art and monuments. Based on a true story, this small unit of Allied Forces scours the war zone looking for irreplaceable artwork, sculptures and other artifacts. Ahead of them the Germans are amassing these treasures and hiding them in secret locations until they are eventually placed in Hitler’s Fuhrer Museum—or worst yet, destroyed. On the other front, the Russian Trophy Brigade is gathering artwork to take back to the Soviet Union in the name of reparation.
Heading the task unit is Frank Stokes (George Clooney). He has authority from US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Christian Rodska) to assemble the group. Among those enlisted are James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). Stokes also drafts a young German immigrant (Dimitri Leonidas) to serve as their driver and interpreter.
Most of these recuits can barely pass basic training. Their real value is their ability to recognizing and retrieving these cultural works. Unfortunately the film doesn’t come off as masterfully as the art it depicts. The editing and pacing are often clunky. And it takes a while for the script to gain traction. All the samel, the result is an earnest project that weaves together humor and drama. The cast, who are obviously enjoying themselves, manages to give life to their characters as well.
While the depictions of violence are surprisingly subdued for a war film, there are still scenes of bloody war wounds, at least two fatal shootings and a landmine explosion. And not only do these enlisted men spew out profanities on a regular basis, they also perpetually puff on their cigarettes.
With an estimated 48,000,000 human deaths, World War II was a bloody battle by all accounts. But the immense loss of life was not the only casualty. Watching this team of Monuments Men fight to preserve the cultural identity and peoples’ history is inspiring, and will give adults and teens a different appreciation for the monumental cost of war.
The Monuments Men is rated PG-13: for some images of war violence and historical smoking.
Director: George Clooney
Cast: Matt Damon, George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman
Studio: 2013 Columbia Pictures
Website: Official site for The Monuments Men.