3 Stars — Courageous
The true story of Adolf Hitler's megalomaniacal drive to possess all the great art of Europe — and if he couldn't have it, to destroy it so that no one else could have it either — is a tale of courage and intelligence told in George Clooney's The Monuments Men.
Producing, directing, writing and starring in the film, Clooney adapts for screen the book by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter titled The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.
The ensemble cast portrays a group of older men — an art professor, curator, artist, sculptor and architect — who convince President Franklin Roosevelt (Michael Dalton) that someone needs to protect the treasures that the Nazis have confiscated in their expansion. As the war turns and the Allies and Russians are converging on Berlin, this team of unlikely heroes must find the hidden art before it is destroyed.
Although there is suspense, as would be expected from a story set within a war, this is not so much an action film but rather a story of intelligence and culture.
The actual team who worked to save the art was comprised of 345 people from 13 countries. They were commonly called the Roberts Commission after its director, Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. However, in this adaptation of the story, the team is made up of only a handful of men led by Frank Stokes (Clooney).
Stokes is a professor of art who singlehandedly brings the concern to the president and assembles his team: 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). Aiding in this scheme is French curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who brings an element of romance to the tale. Increasing the tension in the story are the Russians who are competitors for the art as they enter Germany from the east, a true aspect in history.
Also true to history, the repositories of the stolen art were mines and castles throughout the occupied countries. Serendipitously coming across a greedy art dealer who worked with the Nazis, Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi), who had grabbed some priceless masterpieces for himself, the team discovers a map that describes the locations of the art as well as Germany's stockpile of gold. This fortuitous discovery makes it possible for them to save much of the treasure, although they are not able to reclaim all of it.
Stokes' voiceover commentary as well as the discovery of barrels of gold fillings and a warehouse containing the treasured contents of the lives of the Jewish people who were imprisoned and killed makes the task to protect, recover and return primarily the religious art all the more meaningful. There is no doubt that evil would destroy the good wherever it can, from the lives of our fellow human beings to the art that represents our faith and culture.
That there are those among us willing to risk their lives to protect both human life and dignity demonstrates the best of humanity in the face of the worst of human depravity. These men and women's courage and sacrifice is a message we need to honor and remember always, as well as look for opportunities to preserve human life and dignity wherever we can.
» The actions that Hitler and his Nazi Party took to destroy those who they believed were inferior as well as to destroy art treasures they knew to be superior if they could not own them is a powerful description of the contradictory and illogical nature of evil. How do you respond when people are devalued as inferior and harmed? How would you respond if art treasures were being destroyed? Do you value humans above art? Why or why not?
» The reality that it took hundreds of "monuments men" to protect the art makes more sense than if it only required this small group shown in this film. Why do you think Clooney made it seem as though they were the only ones doing this work?
» The tenuous relationship between the Russians and the Allies during the war eventually disintegrated into the dangerous Cold War that followed. Why do you think this occurred?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.