Directed and co-written by George Clooney, The Monuments Men boasts a premise, cast and production values well deserving of the initial buzz it gathered. The production calculus of the film seems pretty sound: tell one of last great untold (to the masses, anyway) true stories of World War II—one in which “the good guys” occupy a true, unassailable moral and aesthetic high ground from start to finish. Widen the demographic appeal by bringing together an ensemble of actors whose “likability” quotient is through the roof. Finally, graft the plot arc all onto a template established by a markedly less uplifting World War II film. (Critic Ty Burr’s reference to the plot as being “half Saving Private Rembrandt” is dead on.) Hm, well, maybe that last part sounds a little shaky, but the rest of it should work, right?
Only it doesn’t. Instead, tonal instability trumps all, yielding a film that fascinates more in the post-mortem pondering than via cinematic punch. At times, The Monuments Men seems pulled in opposing directions by the attempt to both be true to the story while also giving the audience the more conventional plot arc it (arguably) needs. Such custody battles seldom end well.
If it weren’t based on the real-life efforts of the more than 400 men and women involved in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program during the final years of the war, Clooney’s film could be viewed as a rare instance of art historian propaganda. (A cinematically unexciting profession hasn’t been this transformed on screen since Prof. Jones miscalculated the amount of sand needed to replace a gold idol on a trapped pedestal.) But in truth, the program helped find and preserve millions of cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis or otherwise threatened by the ravages of war. The staggering scope of the effort carries with it some inherent dramatic hurdles, though, the first of which is the need to distill this far-reaching effort involving hundreds of people into a feature-friendly cast of no-more-than-ten. In attempting to clear this, the casting provides as much lift as possible.
The opening scenes in which Frank Stokes (Clooney), having convinced FDR that the cultural heritage of Western Civilization needed to be preserved, recruits his team elicited a subdued chorus of chuckles and identifying whispers. Small wonder, with the cast of Oscar winners (Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin), beloved character actors (John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville) and Bill Murray, the Internet-consensus “Coolest Guy” (evidence to be found here, here, here and, well, pretty much everywhere). Heck, even Bob Balaban triggered some appreciative recognition. (Go Bob!) Together, these early scenes seem to promise a lighter, almost throw-back flair—a buddy film of seven. But faced with the need to condense and summarize the work of hundreds of people spread throughout Europe, these Pretty Neat Seven are immediately separated into smaller groups and thrown out there, occasionally communicating by radio, letter, or the like. What follows are smaller episodes with tones that are by turn comic, romantic (-ish) and tragic. (I swear, sometimes the music itself seems to get confused.) By the final, “That’s just lifted straight from Saving Private Ryan!” scene, the audience hasn’t really been brought on a journey as much as shown slides (with narration, lots and lots of narration) from someone else’s trip.
All in all, The Monuments Men is one of those films that disappoints despite the best intentions and efforts. This is all the more the case because I would have loved to see any of the three or four versions of the film that could have been made had Clooney chosen and stayed on any one path. A light-hearted film focused on the camaraderie and banter of the likes of Murray, Goodman, Clooney, etc.? I’m there! An emotional journey focused on the power of art in the defining of Western Civilization and the threat posed to it by the Nazis? Tell me more! Heck, I wouldn’t have been opposed to a taut Franco-American romance/spy thriller featuring a sincere James Granger (Damon) and stoic, hostile Claire Simone (Blanchett).
Ultimately, The Monuments Men shows how giving an audience a little bit of everything can leave everyone empty-handed.
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov (screenplay); Robert M. Edsel, Bret Witter (book)
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban
Release Date: Feb. 7, 2014