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‘Monuments Men’: more melodrama than history

One of the films that we will review tonight on the Spokane Public Radio show "Movies 101" (on KPBX 91.1; the show will run Saturday on 91.9 KSFC) is George Clooney's "The Monuments Men." A transcript of my own review of the film, which is broadcast over SPR, is as follows:

Many things can be said about the truth. It hurts. It’ll set you free. It’s stranger than fiction. It has moments. Sometimes it’s unvarnished; other times it’s relative. It is out there, and it is often naked.

When it comes to the movies, though, the truth – to put it bluntly – is unnecessary. More to the point, it’s irrelevant. Whole books, in fact, have been written about Hollywood’s tendency not just to ignore history but to willingly, in the name of art, to bend it until the facts fit – even if uncomfortably – into a desired scenario. In his text “History Goes to the Movies: A Viewer's Guide to the Best (and Some of the Worst) Historical Films Ever Made,” author Joseph H. Roquemore charges that Olive Stone filled his movie “JFK” with so many inaccuracies that it “makes Cinderella look like a BBC documentary.”

Given such low standards, it should come as no surprise that the director and co-screenwriters of “The Monuments Men,” George Clooney and Grant Heslov, opt – in pretty much every way – for fiction over fact. Not only do they invent characters – using composites to represent real-life people such as George Stout,  Ronald Balfour and Lincoln Kirstein – but they reimagine the overall mission: According to the online magazine Slate, the original task – which was commissioned in both England and the U.S. – “was to protect historic buildings, not recover art.” In addition, the filmmakers compress the timeline – the movie’s climactic scenes involve an incident that occurred over weeks, not hours – and they invent a romantic relationship that diminishes the role played by the only woman in the film (Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone): According to Slate, not only did the real-life Rose Valland risk her life, she later became a captain in the French army and was a prime figure in the post-war art-restitution process.

But … really. How much do we as movie fans care about all this, the actual versus a dramatic truth? No, if this Clooney-directed, Clooney-and-Heslov-written movie had been better conceived, little else would matter. Like last year’s Oscar winner, “Argo,” the factual missteps would have been excused as forgivable dramatic license.

Those missteps become an issue mainly because Clooney doesn’t give us much choice, everything else about the film being so poorly done. He and Heslov have concocted an old-fashioned melodrama, bearing overt-if-mild comic undertones, that seems more appropriate for the 1950s or ’60s than the 21st century. Come to think of it, the musical score composed by Alexandre Desplat might have worked for portions of the 1970 war-themed caper flick “Kelly’s Heroes.”

In that same vein, many of the scenes in “The Monuments Men” are ham-handed in how they try to manipulate our emotions (warning: gird your loins when Bill Murray steps into the shower). And while it’s OK to narrow the focus of the film to just a few principal characters, it’s less forgivable to make some of those characters over into something akin to a comedy act: But Abbot and Costello is what you’re going to get when you cast actors such as Murray and John Goodman.

As the book on which Clooney’s movie is based proves, the real story of “The Monuments Men” is moving and worth remembering (check out the documentary "The Rape of Europa"). Hollywood’s melodramatic rendering? Mmmm, not so much.