The Monuments Men
2014 - 118 minutes
Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas
The Monuments Men is a series of dramatic high points without the connective tissue necessary to weave a compelling drama. Based on a true story that begs for an absorbing adaptation, the film boils everything down to fussy sentimentality, grandiose speeches, broad comic relief, and the mugs of famous (and supremely talented) actors to convey the tale. The result is a detached and unfocused work from director/co-writer/star George Clooney that never finds the correct tenor, despite genuine intentions.
We’re introduced to Frank Stokes (Clooney) as he advises President Roosevelt on the toll World War II is taking on irreplaceable works of art. The camera is peeking over the president’s shoulder from behind, so Stokes is really directing his exposition to us – complete with photo slideshow. I almost wanted to raise my hand and ask if this stuff was going to be on the midterm.
The professor (Curator? Art historian? Former military man? - I was never quite sure of his background) explains how valuable pieces have been seized by the Nazis. Some is being kept by high-ranking officials while most is to be displayed in Hitler’s planned Fuhrer’s Museum. With the war winding down, Stokes gets the go ahead to assemble a team of professionals to scour the European front lines and attempt to retrieve the stolen masterworks. In Ocean’s Eleven fashion, Stokes gathers the group that includes James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and Preston Saviz (Bob Balaban). In Europe, the Americans connect with Ally friends Jean Claude Cleremont (Jean Dujardin), Englishman Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and young liege Sam (Dimitri Leonidas). The aged ragtag bunch spreads across Germany and France for any leads, but apparently even though they are underfunded and spread across many miles, they are magically brought together from one day to the next in scenes that require more strategizing.
There’s never a true sense of who these men are or their histories together. Stokes goes to Granger first and they share a drink, so apparently they are the chummiest. The others are introduced rapidly in their elements: atop a Chicago building, dusting off a sculpture, directing a ballet, et cetera. They all materialize in Europe no questions asked and start in on their mission – one that feels as disjointed as the film. To manage the action, the crew pairs off and heads in varying directions, with Granger heading to Paris. He encounters untrusting Claire (Cate Blanchett), a museum employee that may be able to help but is fearful the Americans may make off with recovered works similar to what she witnessed with the Nazis.
Horrors of the war are suggested, but not often dealt with head on – an understandable choice considering the mission would become trivial when directly juxtaposed with the deaths of millions. However, attempts to shoehorn in allusions to atrocity don’t work – the discovery of barrels filled with gold teeth extracted from Nazi victims is discovered shortly after a landmine scene that is played for comedy. Murray and Balaban are extremely gifted comedic actors, but their partnership is visited sporadically for benign moments of levity, that is, until it’s not. Appearing out of nowhere, a scene of Murray’s character listening teary-eyed to a Christmas recording from his family is intercut with Clooney’s delivering a gravely injured solider to a doctor. The scene is shot well and looks good, but is long, purposeless, and borderline manipulative – a microcosm of The Monuments Men.
Clooney is going for a classic Hollywood feel with his film, and though he achieves it with the look, he loses sight of the heart and the purpose. Getting the gang together to traipse through Europe during World War II does not equate with getting the gang together to knock off a casino in Vegas. There are issues in play that go beyond banter and melodrama that simply aren’t dealt with fully. Even death is depicted as matter-of-fact bit of plot.
Central questions are sidestepped until bluntly asked in a closing debrief, similar to the opening, where Stokes talks to new President Truman. This time we see the president’s face when he asks, “Was it worth it?” My answer would be probably yes, but The Monuments Men does nothing to make the case for or against it.
© 2014 by Blake Crane