Review: The Monuments Men
For all its talented, attractive, and incomparable leading males, The Monuments Men lacks charm – at least the charm it should have considering it stars George Clooney and Matt Damon, among others.
This softened World War II drama, which focuses on aged art historians and enthusiasts probing Europe to retrieve and protect lost and stolen precious works, seems just a little bit off throughout, whether it be strange pacing, a tone that tenuously skirts the line between humor and drama, or the plethora of fade-outs that bring a curious resolution to each scene.
If nothing else, The Monuments Men, co-written and directed by Clooney, is earnest and well-intentioned. (Loosely) based on a true story, Clooney clearly wants to champion the value of art and creation, which is often extrapolated further in the film to equate with the livelihood and legacy of western civilization, and a more than justifiable reason to send this group into harm’s way.
To his credit, Clooney never over-sentimentalizes the quest of these men: he presents them as individuals, taking a bit of time to flesh out their history, but never dwelling too long. We know one man is a recovering alcoholic, we know two more have a slight feud, while others have wives and children at home.
It is squarely about this mission, one that takes them from Belgium to France to Germany over several years, and it’s a credit to the great actors assembled that they are able to bring with them some much needed and instant humanity.
So each of the crew, which also includes Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Jean Dujardin, gets their due screen time. The men are paired up with one another, set about to some town, while Matt Damon’s James Granger, a man who thinks he can speak French, finds himself seeking information from Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French art curator who was forced to work under the Nazis, and may hold clues to the where thousands of works of art have ended up.
Michaelangelo’s ‘Madonna and Child’ and the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’ becomes the two key works sought after, both because of the historic and personal importance to the group, but also too as a way to give some tangible goals for the viewing audience.
We end up with a partly-capricious, partly heroic tale that throughout and even at the end, lacks tension, but occasionally tries to ramp up a Spielbergian sense of wonder and merriment. Beautifully shot, it’s both at times blunt and just a little too cute for its own good.
While a true story, and indeed an important one that should be told, it just seems too difficult to fully be translated to the screen. What’s worse, however, is that this may be the best effort. It’s a great, likeable cast, and Clooney makes sure not to make this a clichéd story about guys ‘too old for this shit’ (their basic training is both funny and smartly brief), nor is a story that glamorizes war or triumphs the ideals of America (too much).
Simply, all the interesting pieces and curious ideas don’t gel together, and at just under two hours, you’re strained to find a climax, arc, or conclusion. Only once does the film become evocative, strangely, and it’s not when some our heroes find themselves in perilous and very real war scenarios: it’s when we witness just what the Nazis plan to do with the fine art.
So maybe because of that visceral response then, the movie works. Or maybe it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all the rest of the time.