The Monuments Men Blu-ray Review

I tried to approach George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel, without any pre-conceptions or expectations with an understanding from its subject matter that it would not be entertainment in the traditional sense. The story of a little known group of art experts and museum personnel who comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) during World War II does not lend itself to the usual action-packed combat epic.

The Monuments Men is not for those who are looking for action, as they will quickly become bored with its often slow-paced and at times seemingly disjointed storyline. It is, on the other hand, an important piece of filmmaking, as it relates the story of how a group of individuals, thrust into an environment with which they were extremely uncomfortable and awkward, without logistical support and initially unsupported by the combat troops with whom they shared the field, carried out their mission of locating and preserving some of western civilization’s greatest works of art.

The film carries Clooney and his fellow monuments men, played by an all-star cast that includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Dimitri Leonidas, from the shores of Normandy in the aftermath of the invasion to four hidden art caches discovered in Nazi Germany during the allied advance: the copper mine at Siegen, the salt mines at Merker and Altausee and Neu Schwanstein castle. These locations, along with hundreds of others, contained art treasures looted from museums and private collections all over Europe.

But the main focuses of the story are Michaelangelo’s marble sculpture Madonna and Child, looted from the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium and van Eyk’s Ghent Alterpiece. Both are discovered undamaged in the Altausee salt mine which actually houses art destined for Hitler’s proposed Fuehrer Museum in his home town of Linz. The film climaxes as the monument men discover and transport the Madonna and Child with very little time left before a Russian unit charged with seizing and transporting stolen art back to the Soviet Union arrive to occupy the area under inter-Allied agreement.

Cate Blanchett plays a French museum employee, modelled after a real person, who secretly documents Nazi activities regarding stolen art in a journal and hands it over to Matt Damon’s character in the film, enabling the return of thousands of art pieces to their original owners. She is the only woman highlighted in the film, although the MFAA included women, one of whom speaks in the special features that highlights reminisces from original MFAA members.

Clooney, who directed, co-produced and co-wrote the film with Grant Heslov, brilliantly captures the sense of awkwardness and discomfort experienced by the middle-aged intellectuals who make up the monuments men when they arrive in the European Theater of War. This, however, gives the film almost comedic overtones at some points and slows it down with anecdotal incidents included to emphasize those feelings. Jumping back and forth between the various duos of monuments men who head in different directions on the hunt for stolen art also makes the film seem disjointed at times, but the viewer who is really interested on the history and the importance of what these individuals accomplished will certainly not be distracted.

The Monuments Men Blu-ray Review
I would have found the film more cohesive without a couple of thematic distractions which certainly have their place but don’t really serve the story being emphasized here. In particular, the Hitler Youth sniper and the subsequent scene with a cage full of teenage POW’s is indicative of the fanatical efforts to keep the advancing Allies at bay in 1944-1945,but isn’t really relevant to the monuments men story and derails momentum and intrigue rather than build it.

Also, there is no doubt virulent anti-Semitism and the resultant Holocaust were certainly part and parcel of the fundamentals underlying Nazi stolen art policy and resulted in the destruction of many priceless modern, cubist and impressionistic pieces the Nazis considered “degenerate.” While the discovery of gold fillings from Jewish camp victims in the Merker salt mine and the Rothschild family jewelry and furniture collections discovered at Neu Schwanstein makes this point with clarity, the interview between Clooney and the SS officer charged with the destruction of art at the very end is overly dramatized and somewhat stereotypical. The officer’s command at “one of those camps” and Clooney’s monologue about a Jewish deli in New York and his prediction about the impending trial and execution of the SS officer for war crimes is not basic to the story being told and does not tie the story to the Holocaust in any meaningful way like the other scenes do.

High-Def Presentation

The Monuments Men is the latest Blu-ray release by Sony cut directly from a 4K scan of the film. With that knowledge one expects perfection in the picture. In this case the Blu-ray transfer follows along the same lines as the narrative in that it is disjointed at times, in part due to Clooney using a combination of digital and film photography.

When Clooney is shooting with film outside in daylight to achieve a more dated look, the transfer is flush with detail and the muted color palette presented as it should be. When the action moves indoors, the digital cameras push the saturation levels well beyond the traditional film scenes. This aids the blacks in being inky dark, and there are several scenes in the mines to take advantage of this. But everything else indoors is a tad too bright and jarring compared to the outdoor scenes.

Since The Momuments Men is not an action film as some of the advertisements might attempt to suggest, most of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation is subdued and reliant on dialogue. When there is action, whether an explosion or gunfire, the effect is amplified coming out of long stretches of relative quiet. In these infrequent scenes the surrounds pop to life and will jerk your head. Otherwise the dialogue is crisp and clear with no need for center channel adjustment.

The Monuments Men Blu-ray Review
Beyond the Feature

The Monuments Men is the type of film that leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth after an initial viewing, then grows on you – especially after consuming the bonus features. Two of these extras visit with several surviving members of the monuments men and through their stories you learn that several characters in the film are closely based on real people. Clooney’s script could have used some polish, but he took great care in preserving the historical record as best he could.

  • Deleted Scenes (2 mins) – Two individually presented segments cut from the same scene with Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville in a church.
  • In Their Own Words ( 12 mins) – The key bonus feature that visits with real surviving members of the monuments men to recount their stories in relation to the film.
  • A Woman Amongst the Monuments Men (6 mins) – Cate Blanchett’s character is revealed to be based on Rose Valland, and there’s definitely a physical resemblance between the two.
  • George Clooney’s Mission – (5 mins) – A puff piece where everyone raves about working with Clooney.
  • Marshalling The Troops (8 mins) – Recognizing the amazing cast Clooney assembled for this film.
  • Previews (11 mins) – This should have been trailers for The Monuments Men, but instead promotes other Sony films.

The Monuments Men lost its way a few times by drifting from the simple story of what this group of individuals were tasked to do and ultimately did, thus losing some of its potential impact. I still thoroughly enjoyed the film — warts and all — and commend the decision to tell the story and bring some well-deserved recognition to these unsung heroes who put their lives on the line to preserve history, whether others felt it was worth it or not.

out of 5

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