Movie Review: The Monuments Men

(l to r) Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin in “The Monuments Men”

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

George Clooney directs and co-writes The Monuments Men, based on a true story in which seven middle-aged art historians, scholars and architects were tasked with the mission of recovering millions of pieces of art and cultural items stolen by the Third Reich. Far from fit young soldiers, this brainy yet ill-trained ensemble worked tirelessly to prevent the Nazis from turning Europe into, shall we say, “Blingtime for Hitler and Germany.”

Based on Robert M. Edsel’s and Bret Witter’s 2009 non-fiction book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” the film recounts the Allies’ treasure hunt from early 1944 through Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. While General Eisenhower and President Roosevelt had little faith in the mission, the Monuments Men ultimately recovered and returned over five million cultural objects.

Although the script stays true to the story, co-screenwriters Clooney and Grant Heslov create amalgams of some characters while fictionalizing others. Clooney himself plays ringleader Frank Stokes (based on the real-life Harvard art historian George Stout). When he obtains the President’s approval to embark on the mission, it’s up to Stokes to persuade an assorted band of colleagues to participate. In the first act, we meet each unique Monument Man individually. While Stokes’ inducting of these disparate characters is intriguing and entertaining, how is it that he appears to know every last man in both America and Europe?

As the movie progresses, the story is organized to depict the men’s concurrent assignments in Europe via two-party teams. We’ve seen many of these actors appearing in the same film before, such as Bill Murray and Bob Balaban (Moonrise Kingdom, Cradle Will Rock, the upcoming Grand Budapest Hotel). This time around, they’re a comedic duo, the tall and the small, taking turns badgering each other in the mode of a ’40s style Mutt and Jeff. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin (The Artist) work together as an exuberant Midwesterner teamed with a suave French art dealer. Of course, we’re inured to the snappy rapport between Clooney and Matt Damon (aside from the Ocean’s franchise, Damon has now collaborated with Clooney six times). Here, Damon plays an art scholar delegated to charm the tight-lipped curator (Cate Blanchett’s Claire) of Paris’ Jeu de Parme museum. She knows where much of the art has been transported, but is reluctant to inform the Allies, assuming that they’re going to steal it as well. Another pairing: This is the second time Blanchett and Clooney have starred in a World War II feature, the first being 2006′s The Good German.

The only outlier is Hugh Bonneville (most familiar to U.S. audiences as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey). His Donald Jeffries, the alcoholic black sheep of a wealthy family, is unable to find his way back to respectability. But when Stokes offers him a second chance, he is overjoyed. Easily blending a subtle sense of humor with a foundering, heartsick soul, Bonneville gives one of the most affecting performances in the film.

(l to r) John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray in “The Monuments Men”

But while The Monuments Men has its heart in the right place, it suffers from a tone problem. Amid the wry, often anachronistic dialogue, the overdone jokes (much is made of Damon’s character’s stumbling attempts to speak French, not once but thrice), and the cheery score – reminiscent of the whistling “Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai (but without the underlying intent to stave off the horrors of war with defiant cheer) – we also experience the ravages of the Holocaust. Though obviously unintended, these jarring sensibilities result in an unfortunate blend of Ocean’s 11 by way of Schinder’s List.

Unlike Clooney’s and Heslov’s taut, earlier work (i.e., 2011′s The Ides of March and 2005′s Good Night, and Good Luck), The Monuments Men leans toward unnecessary and sloppy sentimentalism. Frequent monologues paying homage to artistic creation often grind the movie to a halt; we don’t need to be hit over the head with, say, an iconic marble statue.

However, what with the ever-growing youth of the audience, we need serious films about WWII’s devastating Nazi occupation to act as cinematic reminders. Particularly given the fact that it’s been 75 years since the height of the war in 1939, which leaves the onetime concentration camp doors wide open for Holocaust deniers. Consequently, perhaps The Monuments Men should have treated this serious subject in a far more effective manner.


Rating on a scale of 5 demonic Teutonics: 2.5

Release date: February 7, 2014
Directed by: George Clooney
Screenplay by: George Clooney & Grant Heslov
Based on the book by: Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas and Cate Blanchett
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes

Here’s the trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes ( Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.


  1. ITTY IT says:

    Hollywood stepped over last year;s awesomely relevant
    ————————-60th Anniversary————————
    of the KOREAN WAR to bring us done-to-death tripe —-like this???!!!

  2. John Booth says:

    A strangely ambivalent review from Kimberly. It seems she has let her own wishes as to what the film should proselytize about, rather than what it chooses to, drive her final conclusions.

    However, Kimberly always gives good value for money and she has explained to me exactly why I should go see this film. Any film that rates the power of art over death is going to get my vote. Hopefully many of the 5 million pieces of art recovered will still be being admired when the Holocaust is as far from its future viewers as say the genocide of the race of Carthaginians by the Romans is to us. History is littered with attempted genocides and a few successful ones. Art lasts much longer.

    I wonder if this film will also be available to our future selves?

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