Niagara Gazette

February 4, 2014

CALLERI: With "Monuments Men," Clooney delivers exciting, old-fashioned movie entertainment

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — You’ve surely heard the lament about today’s films, or perhaps you’ve said it yourself: “They don’t make them like they used to.”

Generally, this comment comes from folks of a certain generation, weaned on the dream factory output of the Golden Age Of Hollywood. Turner Classic Movies has provided younger film fans an extraordinary look at the exceptional movies that the major studios produced for decades.

Sometimes the lament references a slightly shorter, but still vital, second Golden Age of filmmaking, which reflects hundreds of outstanding and interesting movies released in the late 1950s through the early 1970s. From the French New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, Lelouch, to name just three) to the Italian masters (Antonioni, Fellini, Visconti, for example), to the Americans (Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick, and many others), a revolution was created by directors and screenwriters who made motion pictures of lasting importance.

George Clooney grew up in metro Cincinnati into what would today be called a media-savvy family. His aunt was the popular singer Rosemary Clooney and his father, Nick Clooney, was a newspaper columnist, TV newsman, and local television talk show host. The elder Mr. Clooney even worked as an anchorman in Buffalo and wrote an insightful book entitled: “The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections On The Screen.” I’ve interviewed George and talked to Nick in Buffalo and once on a flight to Los Angeles.

My experience with the Clooney men bears out the fact that George has an instinctive understanding of the expressive nature of motion pictures; their ability, when done well, to tell engaging stories. He grew up surrounded by an historical sense of “show business.” For him, old-fashioned is not a negative. It’s something to be applauded and respected.

George’s new film, “The Monuments Men,” which he directed, co-wrote (with Grant Heslov), co-produced and stars in, is a winner. The movie does what all good films should do. It creates a shared experience that breaks the ridiculous confines of audience demographics. It’s a must-see for everyone, the first of the new movie year.

I think older children, especially teenagers, will learn much from this film. I left the press screening admiring Clooney’s willingness to refuse to compromise his overriding principles about what he believes is essential to telling a story in the best possible way. And it’s a tribute to the respect and love he has for his father, that George has given Nick an essential, movie-ending cameo part in the picture.

Based on Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s book of the same name, “The Monuments Men” is about Hitler’s plan to loot Europe of its art treasures and exhibit them in a massive new museum dedicated to his glory: centuries of paintings and sculptures, five-million pieces in all. His theft of the priceless art was one of the most terrible examples of the imperialistic nature of empires. As it became clear to the Germans that they were going to lose the war, the invaluable art, the pinnacle of human creativity, was ordered destroyed by Hitler himself.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized that the treasures had to be rescued. A team of art experts, architects and scholars was assembled. They were turned quickly into a rag-tag semblance of soldiers and sent to France to search for and save the treasures. They worked with members of the French Resistance, including a Parisian woman, called Claire Simone in the film, who is based on an actual person, the heroic art historian Rose Valland.

Under Clooney’s expert direction, “The Monuments Men” tells its true story with powerful emotion. A sequence unreeling as a Christmas carol is sung is heartbreaking. The taut and believable screenplay ignores today’s overblown standards for an action picture. There are no false notes, no unnecessary inventions adding excessive violence to the cerebral nature of the enterprise. The threatened art exists as in a breathless caper film. There is tragedy and there is honor. The characters ring true and you share their sorrow, disappointments, and glory.

Clooney, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban deliver wonderful, empathetic performances as members of the “art squad.” As Simone, the woman for whom saving the art is paramount, Cate Blanchett is superb. The cast also includes a very good Dimitri Leonidas as a G.I. whose family fled Europe, and who ends up assisting Clooney and company.

Alexandre Desplat’s march-oriented music is perfect counterpoint to the suspense-filled race against time. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (nominated this year for an Oscar for “Nebraska”) beautifully captures the colors of the stunning stolen works of art.

“The Monuments Men” is about passion and determination and bravery. It offers a look at a different, not as well-known, side of a terrible war. But it was war, nonetheless. 

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.