On Saturday evening, my brain hit a wall with homework. I was sick and tired of staring at a screen and doing homework so … I located The Monuments Men movie online and watched it. By staring at a screen. C’est la vie.
As previously stated, this movie was based off of the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History which was written by Robert Edsel back in 2010. I highly recommend the book for a number of reasons. For one, Edsel is not a scholar so his writing has much more of a narrative flow than most history books. There are even scenes in the book that so moved him or amused him that he recreated dialogue between the various characters to better set the scene. In his first foray into this fascinating topic, Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe’s Great Art – America and Her Allies Recovered It (whew! what a mouthful!), Edsel successfully framed the entirety of World War II as Hitler’s desire to acquire all the arts, and the Monuments Men book expands on that, with more words and less pictures.
It focuses on several of the major characters that went in and tried to save Western Civilization in mainland Europe although it excluded the activity happening in Italy. Saving Italian art is the subject of an entirely new book, Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasure from the Nazis. Regardless, The Monuments Men was obviously crafted with care and attention by someone who has lived, eaten and breathed this subject for a long time. And there’s just enough detail to be thoroughly thorough but not so much that it reads like the textbook in 9th grade that made you swear never to touch history again.
Then George Clooney read the book and wanted to put it on the silver screen. I covered this in my previous entry about actually “meeting” Robert Edsel and getting him to sign my book for me. Let’s give thanks for our dear friend George – do you mind if I call him George?
So the movie …. um, yeah. I saw it opening weekend. It had a magnificent advertising campaign, with the trailer and the poster and everything. The hype definitely worked. My history nerd friends had been texting and emailing each other for weeks beforehand comparing the visual aesthetics of George Clooney vs Matt Damon in an officer’s uniform, the fear induced when nonfiction is fictionalized on the screen, and how it’s okay to have different favorite periods of history like it’s okay to have favorite flavors of ice cream. #historynerdproblems.
I greatly enjoyed the movie although several of the lay people I saw it with were less than impressed cinematically. I agree with Edsel when I say the movie really captured the spirit of the men and their mission. However, I also generally agree with my lay friends because the movie is not what one expects from a World War II movie. The narration is disjointed because the cast splits up and the editors didn’t cut their adventures together in the best way. In fact, that’s what I would call this movie – an adventure movie. It’s much more lighthearted than just about any other history movie with a serious subject. I would compare it to something like the Goonies or Pirates of the Caribbean in terms of overcoming obstacles to find buried treasure. It tries to allude to all the little details in the book that set the stage – like command was less than willing to help them so whatever supplies they had – pens, paper, vehicles, permission to be there – they had to acquire on their own. Or that they were completely making up this job as they went along as nothing like this had existed before. The driving force behind all of this was George Clooney’s character, in the movie named Frank Stokes, in real life named George Stout. George Stout was brilliant, an observer, a honeybadger, and the glue that held them all together, at least in the books. (In real life, there were a couple hundred of men and women who served in various locations.)
This is why I recommend reading the book first if at all possible.
While I watched it a second time, I took notes, which I relay. Conclusion: I enjoyed the spirit of the movie and it might be something I’ll pick up from the $10 bin at WalMart. It wasn’t quite good enough to warrant buying it fresh off the DVD rack but I think it’s something everyone should know about. Plus, Matt Damon in an Officer’s uniform.
Thoughts while watching the movie:
(Also, factcheck and comparisons over at this site)
– They staged a lot of the shots to look exactly like actual pictures. At the beginning when Goering is walking through a hallway of art, it’s set up just like the pictures.
– The use of original photographs during George Clooney’s slideshow to FDR was good.
– He convinced FDR far too easily. But the briefing was a good way of framing the whole issue quickly and succinctly.
– Casting was PERFECT, especially Frank Stokes/George Stout. In fact, from reading the book, I had the impression that George Stout’s character was so similar to Ulysses Everett McGill (also played by George Clooney) in O Brother Where Art Thou that I actually pregamed watching the Monuments Men with O Brother. Also, I liked that these are all older actors who mostly don’t give a crap anymore (Bill Murray) and their group chemistry is obvious.
– Note: The film is more of an interpretation of what happened so the names were all changed from the actual historical figures. It threw me off at first but I got used to it.
– Nice inclusion of Sam Epstein, the young Jewish kid based on Harry Ettlinger, who is still alive and who attended a special screening of the film at the White House in February.
– Briefing Matt Damon’s James Granger/James Rorimer character also summarizes the mission neatly. Neither this briefing nor the one to FDR do a good job of framing the mission within the scope of WW2 as a military conflict. They don’t mention specific events and rarely include years. But then, it isn’t a war movie.
– It’s clear they totally made up their own rules.
– George Stout/Frank Stokes always wore a large N on the front of his uniform from his Navy days during WWI. This was missing in the film and it made me sad.
– The British uniforms! After going out with the Polish guys earlier this year, I can recognize British uniforms and all the pieces included and sort of where to look to determine nationality. For example, Poles have a small red badge that say “Poland” on their shoulder, while the Irish Guard have a small green badge that says “Irish Guard,” etc. And they looked different from the American GI uniforms so props to that. I’m guessing (without knowing too much detail) that the nitty-gritty was well-researched and presented.
– The scene where Claire Simone/Rose Valland chases down the guy who stole all her art – she would have never done that. She would not have let them known she understood German or her whole disguise would have been blown.
– It is not clear how high-profile the Monuments Men are. For example, when Matt Damon tells Rose who he is and she says, “I know who you are,” it’s a brief allusion to the fact that he’s this young, whiz kid making huge strides in the arts world with a serious reputation, but there’s not more than that. The other characters were equally high profile. Matt Damon’s character curates the Met forever, while the little guy founds the New York Ballet, etc.
– Claire/Rose’s hostility to Granger/Rorimer is good. As Edsel said in his talk, “Rose Valland and James Rorimer were two people of destiny each holding a piece of the same key.” The mission would not have been successful if their (strictly professional) relationship had never developed.
– When the British guy goes to Bruges to save the Madonna and is turned down by the British officer – I think the officer is a member of the Irish Guard (see previous point on uniform recognition), but I have no idea if the Irish Guard were actually present at Bruges at the time.
– The radio George Clooney swiped from somewhere and fixed – what kind of range does that thing have?? Obviously its movie range is far greater.
– I really liked the inclusion of Bill Murray’s phonograph message from his daughter. They were made from paper and fairly inexpensive ways to get a voice message to your soldier. It proved to me George Clooney (the director) was also intent on showing off the whole era, even down to the dentist’s drill you can see in the background of the dentist scene.
– The movie does not do a good job of portraying Rose as the central figure in the art recovery. In the book, Edsel has time to describe the professional courtship, which increases her significance.
– The Russian guy didn’t look very Russian.
– I liked Claire’s period-style hair, especially because it didn’t look perfect. It isn’t completely smooth and it is totally believable that a real human person put it together.
– The inclusion of Claire’s brother’s tie. I mostly like how it came back at the end tied to the train door as a personal inside message to Rose. It was a nice touch.
– I am not sure how Matt Damon knew the other two had died when he rejoined the group. He had seemed fairly isolated in Paris. And he hadn’t had much time to bond with them before he left them.
– When the Germans are seen torching the mine, the camera specifically shows a Rembrandt burning. As this picture is still lost (which is stated at the end when Clooney is giving a report to Truman), I object to the depiction of its destruction.
– The book of art they found at the Niewshwanstein castle totally existed. It’s how Hitler went shopping for art.
– There are brief allusions to the “Degenerate Artists” or artists who made paintings but not with traditional depictions. Like Picasso or Matisse. I wrote briefly on this when a HUGE stash of hidden degenerate art was found in Munich last year.
(Breaking news on this! Read here and here!)
– Finding the tooth fillings – yikes. You can read about how even the dead bodies were stripped of anything of value, including wedding rings and fillings, but seeing a large barrel full of fillings gives it a visual weight and makes it seem more real. If the barrel is full of fillings, imagine how many teeth were looted, which means hundreds of people died to fill that one barrel.
– At the end, when George Clooney is briefing the president on the mission’s success, I liked the switch of presidents. Obviously everyone knows (or I should hope they do) that FDR died just after being reelected a 3rd time before the war was over and his VP, Harry Truman, ascended to power and ended the war and dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. I think depicting both presidents, who both had their share of reservations about this little unit honeybadgering it up in Europe, proves again that Clooney wanted to depict the whole era as well, not just focus on the story or characters.