Film and Score Review: George Clooney and Alexandre Desplat’s “The Monuments Men”

Poster for "The Monuments Men" (credit: Sony)

Poster for “The Monuments Men” (credit: Sony)

“The Monuments Men” (2014) is based on the true story of a band of art experts who managed to get mandate from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to go into Europe and rescue art and other cultural treasures that Adolf Hitler had stolen from the people he was trying to annihilate.

I saw it last night and before I go any further, let me say that I very much recommend you see this film. Also, this review contains some minor spoilers.

Don’t go in looking for historically accurate details. Most of the names have been changed and characters have been fictionalized. But that isn’t a knock. Remember that Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” one of the greatest and most epic portrayals of World War II ever put to film, was largely a work of historical fiction.

This film, from co-writer/director/star George Clooney, harkens back to films like “The Great Escape” (1963) and, to a lesser extent, “Hell Is For Heroes” (1962). It’s not so heavy as Ryan or “Schindler’s List” or “The Pianist.” But that also is not a knock. It’s about the men sent in to rescue the art as much as it is about the rescue itself.

While their stories are nothing alike, you might want to see “The Great Escape” first.

Like “The Great Escape,” this film features a dream cast. “The Great Escape” featured Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, and even current “NCIS” star David McCallum. “The Monuments Men” starts out with Clooney and then adds his buddy Matt Damon, plus Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and, top it off, Cate Blanchett as French museum curator. Co-writer and frequent Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov even has a small role as a doctor. There’s also a great cameo at the end of the film. Look for it, but I won’t give it away entirely.

The film features plenty of good humor, good action, and some moments that will actually make you jump. A movie that can do that gets serious points in my book!

But it was missing something. I think it may simply have been too short. I think what I wanted was more of the gang assembling and getting to know each other (many of the members were familiar with each other, but not all) or more time showing how the art was stolen in the first place or more time showing it getting returned. After all, Monuments clocks in at 118 minutes while Escape was 172-minutes-long. There’s plenty of material, but it could simply have been a budgetary issue.

In the end, there are plenty worse things to say about a movie than it wasn’t long enough.

Going back a bit, my point about showing the art being stolen in the first place brings me to the elephant in the room – the Holocaust.

I want you to know, at least in part, where I am coming from when I speak of the Holocaust. I am what is known as a third generation Holocaust survivor. Most of my mother’s family was in the Holocaust. My grandfather (Poppy) lost his brother (after whom I am named) and his parents to starvation in the Lodz ghetto and my grandmother (Nana) lost her parents in the death camps. Poppy was liberated from a death march by the Americans and Nana was liberated from Bergen-Belsen by the British. May they rest in peace.

The lack of early action on the part of the United States and the Allies to save the Jews and other people Hitler was hell-bent on exterminating is deplorable. It is a stain on my country’s history.

The above two paragraphs are, of course, a major simplification. There are many complicated issues there, but for the purposes of this review, that will suffice.

In this film, the true horrors of the Holocaust are seen mostly in the form of the nearly empty streets of Nazi-occupied Paris or destroyed cities elsewhere. But the suffering of the people themselves is largely glossed over. That could have been shown, as I said, by showing brutal scenes of Jews being forced from their homes and then their art being removed. Perhaps it should have been shown.

This, however, isn’t a movie about what wasn’t done by the Allies earlier in the war, but about the commendable thing the Monuments Men did do. They were determined to make sure that even if my people didn’t survive, my culture would. We are all fortunate for that and it’s a part of the World War II story a great many people have never heard about.

So, go see the movie. It’s not nearly as great as “The Great Escape” or “Saving Private Ryan,” but it’s still worth seeing on the big screen.

Now, anyone who knows me well knows that I am a major film score enthusiast. I’ve seen John Williams in concert at least seven times. Embarrassingly, I’ve lost count.

At any rate, one of the best film score composers working today is a Frenchman named Alexandre Desplat. I first came to be aware of him when he worked on another film which starred George Clooney – Steven Soderbergh’s “Syriana” (2005). There was something he did there that just struck me as really interesting and I made sure I’d stay aware of his work in the future.

That has included “The Queen” (2006), which had slight shades of Jerry Goldsmith in the scene where Diana is fleeing the paparazzi; “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” (2009), which I did not see; “The King’s Speech” (2010); the final two “Harry Potter” films in 2010 and 2011; George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” (2011), which featured an extremely catchy campaign theme; the full-on cry-inducing “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (2011); Wes Anderson’s oh so wonderful “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012); Ben Affleck’s “Argo” (2012), Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), which on top of its overall excellent score had some particularly haunting and brooding horns in the scene where the stealth Blackhawks make their night flight into Pakistan; and the wonderful “Philomena” (2013).

Now he takes us back to World War II in “The Monuments Men.” Among his best qualities when compared to, say, a Hans Zimmer, are his sensibilities. He’s extremely intelligent in how he scores a film. What is the feel of the scene and the movie in general? He knows how to convey that and show genuine musical creativity.

The march theme he wrote for the main title and end credits is so pastiche! I love it! Obviously, Desplat has seen “The Great Escape” (check out its main title here) and probably “Patton.”

There is some really great action music in the the track “Finale.” It actually reminded me a bit of some of the music from John Williams’ “The Empire Strikes Back.” The energy Desplat endows his score with is thrilling.

In the scene scored by the track “The Sniper,” we are caught off guard by something and the music jumps right in.

There are many other scenes of tenderness, suspense, humor, and patriotism and Desplat really got them right.

Desplat was recently asked by Reuters about the current state of film music.

“It seems sometimes that after more than 600 years of sophisticated, extremely scientific and incredible music, there’s a kind of a laziness in what I hear in many movies now,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t have to be a big score. It can be very minimal. … But it’s just a matter of sophistication and craft. I would say for the last 10 years it’s lost that a bit.”

Keep your ears open. He’s scoring the upcoming “Godzilla.” I sure hope it’s as good as it looks like it could be! He’s also scoring Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” about which I’m quite excited in an entirely different way.

– Evan Bindelglass

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2 Responses to Film and Score Review: George Clooney and Alexandre Desplat’s “The Monuments Men”

  1. David says:

    Good review. A small detail, Desplat has a cameo in the film (A role that Clooney wrote for him), and most of his scenes are unscored.

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