George Clooney’s sincere attempt at a World War II classic is admirable, but ultimately a tonal mess of a film that does not quite know what it wants to be.
If you destroy an entire generation of a peoples’ culture, it’s as if they never existed.
Based on the true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archive program and the men that set aside the comforts of home, putting on soldiers’ uniforms to protect the historical art caught in the crossfire, The Monuments Men is set in 1943 at the height of World War II. Frank Stokes (Clooney) assembles a team of middle-aged curators, art historians, and museum directors to go through basic training and ship out to occupied France, to liberate stolen art acquired by the Nazis to fill Hitler’s new museum project. Art that has resided in Europe for ages, that defines our cultural history, triumphs and failures, is in danger of either being destroyed by gunfire or systematically collected for the pleasure of art-lover Hilter.
Each team member is assigned a separate task: James Granger (Matt Damon) must convince Claire Simone, a member of the French resistance — Cate Blanchett, luminous as always – to help him locate art, stolen from private Jewish collections, and restore them to their former owners. Damon walks around attempting to speak French to amusingly subtitled results; Blanchett is not quite ready to trust anyone from another country purporting to provide aid, but the two form a bond that, though truncated by the screenplay, is effective.
Sergeant/Architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Private Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) trek to Belgium to protect the Ghent Altarpiece. Their relationship and biting interactions provide levity and some of the film’s most successful moments. Their developing friendship is clearly defined, which allows us to form a real attachment to them — but unfortunately, this is the exception.
Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman, and Jean Dujardin round out the cast. Bonneville portrays Major Donald Jefferies, a man attempting to reclaim his honor after losing it down the bottle. His need to protect Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges is an allegory to the reparation of his soul, a potentially poignant moment lost by the end of the hodgepodge, patchwork movie.
The cast is able to muddle through the confusing tones to create separately adept work, but to what end? It’s like shining a brass ring: it will never be gold. And to that point, why so many characters? I know that the real “Monuments Men” numbered the same, but if you include each man, you should give him enough screen time and story development to facilitate a relationship with the viewer. By the end of the movie, I named characters “driving guy,” “sad guy,” “evil mustachioed dude.”
Expectations were high for Clooney’s fifth attempt behind the camera, and it pains me to admit how annoyed it made me. He’s let me down before, particularly with the 2011’s The Ides of March, which could have been magnificent had it not been for the complete implosion that made up its denouement. But it is his eye for composition and ability to bring out the best in his cast that keeps me coming back. I’m a huge fan of Good Night, and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and even Leatherheads; I hold Clooney to a high standard (no higher than he appears to hold himself), and it’s obvious that the man knows what makes a “good movie.” So I find it hard to believe that he did not recognize the problems with this uneven film.
There are moments, possibly mistaken for gravitas, of brilliance: particularly the relationship between Bob Balaban and Bill Murray, anytime George Clooney reads a letter or speaks through the radio, and a haunting scene with Goodman and Dujardin later on. In one inspired moment of grandeur, Bill Murray hears a recording from home of his daughter and grandchildren singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” whilst bathing in the officer showers; he walks back in his bathrobe, surrounded by snow, light gathered in pools, in a haunting wide shot. That is the film I wish this was. That is the film we all expected. But only having these fleeting moments to single out is is what makes this film is a failure.
It’s discouraging to reflect on what it could have been. Originally slated to premiere during Oscar season, The Monuments Men was shelved for “retooling.” Clooney stated that the filmmakers hoped to find a more even tone (not to mention finish its special effects), but in that respect, it’s a disaster. What begins as a slapstick-y Ocean’s 11 romp in the first act, takes a hard turn into “moving” Saving Private Ryan-esque epic, and ends as something “suspenseful” like The Great Escape…no iteration fully realized, all inferior shells of their predecessors. No character seems to grasp what kind of movie they’re in, as each are on a different path. It feels more like disparate episodes of an HBO miniseries awkwardly cut together than a film that works successfully on its own.
My theory — more my hope, really — is that there are 30+ minutes of story on the cutting room floor. One major problem with the film is that it just starts, like a rocket, devoid of any development of the characters or their motives. Clooney’s Stokes is giving a presentation before Roosevelt to acquire funding for his expedition into the warfront, and perhaps he felt this was introduction enough for the film, enough to inspire hope that the rag-tag bunch of architects, curators, and art historians will achieve their goals…but we are robbed of any time to care about these people. BAM, we are in France! BAM, the team separates to each carry out a task! BAM the RUSSIANS ARE COMING! There is no sense to it. In fact, the under-developed race-to-the-finish comes completely out of left field to simply wrap up a series of events we have no emotional stake in.
The unfortunate truth is that the real story is so much more compelling — nothing needed to be altered, heightened or “Hollywood-ized.” There was enough suspense, loss, and triumph to just retell as it happened, beat by beat, from one or another’s perspective. The fault of Clooney and his writer Grant Heslov is in trying to give it a breezy 90210 sensibility that instead only made it feel more artificial.
At just under two hours, I doubt you will be bored spending time with The Monuments Men; you’ll chuckle, you’ll mourn, you’ll learn a few things about history. However, the moment the credits roll, you’ll forget what you just viewed, and blissfully go about your business unchanged, unmoved, and indifferent. I recommend you save time and just see THE LEGO MOVIE. The world will be better for it.