As WWII was winding down and it became clear that the occupying Nazis were systematically looting and transporting masterpieces of European art on a massive scale there was an urgency to halt the looting and to prevent collateral damage by the troops as it became known that Hitler had left orders to destroy everything should Germany lose the war. To that end FDR established a secret Army division called MFAA (Monuments, Fine Art and Archives) in 1943.
Nicknamed the Monuments Men, this was a largely volunteer group of men and women from the fields of art history, museum curators, conservators, architects and archivists. There were some 350 members from thirteen countries who worked in uniform (many without military training) as regular personnel often behind enemy lines and in the line of fire to carry out their particular task under the radar screen. It was an audacious plan and phenomenally successful by any standard. The Nazis invested heavily in securing secret locations, often in abandoned mines and caves. The recovery work continued for years after the end of the war. Some five million pieces were recovered and returned to their proper owners.
Although much was destroyed by the Germans before the Allies could secure it - the scale and thoroughness of the Nazi’s was staggering. In one cave was discovered stacks of gold bouillon (representing the treasury of Germany), hundreds of chandeliers, barrels of gold fillings along with vast quantities of art.
After seeing an interview with the very well-spoken eloquent Robert Edsel on Charlie Rose I was really anticipating a solid intelligent suspenseful intriguing film. The elements for a terrific movie are all here. George Clooney starring, writing and directing. Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban is an impressive cast. A fascinating, little-known true story - with major art masterpieces, WWII plotting and action, dramatic and picturesque locations. And yet.............it is a thoroughly unnecessarily annoying disappointment.
The film is based on extensive and painstaking research by Robert Edsel who has dedicated the last 12 years to this project, related books and documentaries and started The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. He is passionate about this period of history and has the fruits of his labor. That is why I cannot understand why this is not a better film. Why isn’t it as good as Argo?
The script is meandering and the dialog misses its mark whether trying for humor or uber-seriousness. The various episodes do not hang together to create any momentum. Whenever any drama begins to build - the action suddenly shifts to another scene leaving out what could have been fascinating footage illustrating what it took to move huge quantities of rare and delicate art to safety with the enemy bearing down. The characters are all based on actual people but undeveloped. But the casting of a nebbishy Bob Balaban as Lincoln Kirstein is just one great example of squandered potential. I feel deprived. I’ll have to read the book.
Review by Belle McIntyre