Art of truth-telling
GEORGE Clooney’s fifth film as director, The Monuments Men, covers similar territory to that of John Frankenheimer’s excellent The
Train (1964) in that both movies explore the theft of classic artworks by the Germans as they retreated from occupied countries in the last year or so of World War II. In style and mood, however, The Monuments
Men more closely resembles those large-scale ensemble movies, such as The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), in which an illassorted bunch of good guys sock it to the German bad guys.
Clooney’s film is based on a book by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter, in which the authors describe the efforts made to prevent some of Europe’s most famous and priceless works of art from falling into the hands of the Germans or the Russians or, worst of all, being destroyed. Central to the story lie those age-old questions about the value of art to society. If the Allies won the war but lost mankind’s cultural history in the process, would this, in fact, have been a defeat? And is the life of a man or woman worth more, or less, than, say, the Mona Lisa?
The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section was formed in 1943 as part of the 12th Army Group, charged with the protection and documentation of works of art damaged during the war as well as the investigation, location, recovery and repatriation of art that had been stolen by the Nazis from France, Belgium, The Netherlands and other countries; they were stolen because Hitler planned the establishment of an art museum in Linz, the Austrian town where he was born.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a character based on George Stout, a curator and conservationist at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum who was a key member of MFAA. The screenplay, by Clooney and regular collaborator Grant Heslov, sticks fairly closely to the facts, possibly to the detriment of the film’s entertainment value.
In short order, Stokes recruits an international team of art experts to become the Monument Men. These include: James Granger (Matt Damon), an art restorer; Walter Garfield (John Goodman), a sculptor; Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), former head of a museum in Britain; Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), a Chicago architect; and Ecole des Beaux-Arts representative Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). Many of this group are well past the age for military service, but the film skips through their basic training without allowing much time to ponder the implications and before long they’re all in Europe on separate missions. Among the artworks they’re particularly anxious to retrieve are Michelangelo’s Madonna, stolen from the cathedral in Bruges, and a 12-panel altar piece,
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, and stolen from the cathedral in Ghent.
There are the makings of an exciting film here, and Clooney’s previous track record as a director promised much, but somehow The
Monuments Men fails to ignite. Part of the trouble is the screenplay that seems too anxious to include comic one-liners at the expense of genuine suspense. In addition, dividing the story between several groups of characters doesn’t pay off, since some are more interesting than others, and Clooney’s Stokes is too often off the screen.
Scenes in Paris involving Granger and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), the assistant curator at a Paris art museum, are handled with a surprising lack of subtlety.
The film is not without its qualities, and the issues it raises are timeless. But as a big-budget action thriller with a stellar cast it’s surprisingly listless and the jaunty music score, by Alexandre Desplat, is often at odds with the mood.
The epilogue features a cameo from Nick Clooney, the director’s father, who plays Stokes as an old man.
HANNAH Arendt also explores a real story with a World War II background. This German production, directed by veteran Margarethe von Trotta, is a reminder of a controversy that erupted in the early 1960s when Arendt, a Holocaust survivor, wrote a contentious article for
The New Yorker, followed by a book, about the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel.
The film begins — a bit unnecessarily — with the 1960 kidnapping of Eichmann in Argentina by Mossad agents. Von Trotta, who has made several film biographies of celebrated women, including Rosa Luxemburg (1985), quickly establishes Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) as a New York-based intellectual, happily married to Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg). Her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is considered by many to be a masterpiece. New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) proposes that Arendt cover the Eichmann trial from Israel, an idea encouraged by her friend Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), the author of
The Group, and strongly discouraged by her Israeli friend Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen).
Despite reservations, Arendt goes to Israel and attends the trial, which is largely shown via original newsreel coverage), but her conclu- sions — that Eichmann believed he did no wrong but just followed orders (“the banality of evil”) and that some Jewish leaders should have done more to stand up against the Nazis — proved to be furiously controversial, especially back in the US.
This is a film of ideas, and a reminder of some of the controversies still swirling around World War II and its aftermath. Sukowa’s fine, intelligent performance as the chain-smoking protagonist provides a solid centre against which the pros and cons ebb and flow.
Von Trotta’s latest biopic is a film of controversial ideas, and such things are rare enough in cinema these days for this German production to be warmly welcomed. CONTROVERSY is also at the heart of Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, The Armstrong
Lie, in which the deceit and disgrace of Tour de France winning cyclist Lance Armstrong is explored in almost exhaustive detail. Gibney had been making a documentary about Armstrong’s 2009 comeback and as a result had been granted a great deal of access to him and his team, but in the wake of proof of the champion’s drugtaking, and his “confession” on Oprah Winfrey’s television program last year, Gibney recorded a new interview that contradicts many earlier statements.
It’s a compelling story, though it doesn’t sustain a two-hour plus running time. The race scenes are superbly shot and edited, but the selfserving Armstrong outstays his welcome.
Janet McTeer plays Mary McCarthy in Hannah Arendt; and a scene from The Armstrong Lie
Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett in a scene from George Clooney’s World War II drama The Monuments Men, top; members of the wartime US arts squad plan strategies, left