By Susan JAMES
Billed as ‘the greatest art heist in history’, ‘The Monuments Men’ is the story of the five million works of art looted by the Nazis in World War II and a small unit of historians and scholars drafted into the army and sent to Europe for the purpose of getting them back. Based on the book detailing the real life adventures of these men, the movie is a passion project of George Clooney’s. Clooney co-wrote and directed it and brought a bunch of his friends onboard to star. The story is fascinating but it is the larger than life charisma of Clooney, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and the always sublime Cate Blanchett that keeps us riveted to our seats.
Throughout the war Hitler, Goering and their minions were ‘collecting’ art from every gallery and museum in the countries that they conquered. When Jewish families were sent to concentration camps, their art pieces were added to the Nazi hoard. Hitler’s plan was to build an enormous museum complex for himself in his Austrian hometown and fill it with stolen art. The Allies knew more or less what was happening but it wasn’t until 1943-44 that they were in a position to do anything about it.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, an art historian desperate to save the looted treasure and willing to sweet-talk a skeptical FDR into agreeing. For Stokes the quest is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Western Civilization. Science has created the weapons of mass destruction used in war. It is art that redeems and offers an answer to human suffering more profound than any other. For Stokes and the men he recruits, art is eternal and for some of them it is worth whatever sacrifice is needed to preserve it. Six Americans, one Brit, a Frenchman, and a German-Jewish-American kid form Stokes’ band of treasurer hunters.
Curator of Medieval Antiquities at the Met in New York, James Granger (an engaging Matt Damon), is sent to Paris just as the Nazis are pulling out. Chief among the works that he is focused on finding is the early Renaissance Ghent Altarpiece. In Paris he meets Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a former curator at the Jeu de Paume, one of the city’s premier art museums. It has been stripped of its works but Claire, who worked with the French Underground, has kept meticulous records of what was taken and where it has probably been hidden and she gives the information to Granger.
Tensions ratchet up as Stokes and his men are told that the Russians advancing from the east are confiscating all of the Nazi art they can find and taking it back to Russia as war spoils. Caught between the retreating Nazis tasked by Hitler to destroy the works and the advancing Russians determined to commandeer them, ‘The Monuments Men’ is a caper movie where the Robin Hoods steal from the bad guys and return the treasures to their rightful owners. You don’t need an art degree to enjoy the action. If you can recognize the Mona Lisa or know who Michelangelo is the fast paced race to the treasure will keep you entertained. See you at the movies!