Art of truth-telling

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM REVIEWS -

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

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