While war movies often have trouble with authenticity and being accurate to a million different details while still being watchable, few have achieved this balance and those that have are brilliant movies (Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers come to mind). Monuments Men is more than a war movie, however, it is a vignette of one of the biggest art preservation campaigns yet accomplished and was the very first time such an undertaking had been attempted.
The film is based on the book of the same name, a historical recount of the Monuments Men division of the armed forces from 1941-1946, where men and women with backgrounds in art conservation, sculpting, art history and even museum curators/directors and others formed a large unit whose task was to go throughout Europe to preserve thousands of years of history and culture in the midst of a war zone.
This may sound an impossible thing to do, but the Monuments Men were able to save priceless national treasures as well as the hundreds of thousands of daily objects confiscated from mainly Jewish families. The book is almost 500 pages and while it has a strong narrative, translating this into a film is problematic and the flaws in the movie are many. With that, I must say that I enjoyed the film (I say this begrudgingly since it was directed by George Clooney) and it was able to capture some of the major events of the book gracefully.
One of the big problems I have with the film is that they have changed all of the names of the people involved. Throughout the film, every time Matt Damon called Cate Blanchett “Claire Simone” I wanted to scream at the screen that the name of the French museum volunteer and invaluable asset to the French underground as well as the Monuments Men (a woman who worked alongside Nazis at the Jeu de Palmes, a Louvre museum in Paris and kept meticulous notes on every piece of art they stole and brought there) was actually Rose Valland. I am sure there was a privacy debate or something with the copyright to make it necessary to change the names, but after reading the book I found myself frustrated at puzzling out who was supposed to be who when all the names were changed.
The strong narrative present in the book is very much present in the film; it begins with the theft of the Bruges Madonna and actually ends with the discovery of it. The Madonna was one of the most important finds the Monuments Men had and I thought it was rightfully at the center of the story along with the Ghent Alterpiece from Belgium. Besides Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray and John Goodman were among the many veteran actors in the film who really brought the characters alive and truly seemed to understand the atmosphere of the time.
I was especially impressed by the landscapes and how real they seemed, the “movie magic” was poured all over the backdrop from Paris to Inner Germany. While it bothered me how they changed a few key details, such as how Ronald Balfour, British art historian, met his end. In the book, he is walking with a guide in a town in Belgium that is under attack from Germany and when he rounds a corner a bomb goes off. In the film, they paint Balfour as a struggling drunk who is redeemed by his heroic death in attempting to stop the Nazis from stealing the Bruges Madonna.
This is not what happened; the film over-romanticized the death of Balfour while also taking artistic license to tell his story. Overall, I would give the film a 5.6 out of 10, it was entertaining but not overly accurate with facts or true to the actual events that happened in 1941-1945.