With most films dealing with war, people have a certain expectation of what they’re going to see. We most-commonly associate war with violence, guns, Good vs. Evil, and a story about men fighting other men. As far as most war stories go, a lot of the lesser known stories are really amazing, but don’t have the violence to compel people to read them. Just because a film is set in the war-time, doesn’t mean it has to deal with the violence. Just because a film is about art and protecting it during war, doesn’t mean that it’s not important or uninteresting.
Towards the end of World War II, the Nazi Party was stealing and destroying art of every kind from countries it had conquered. When the priceless works began adding up, art professor Frank Stokes (George Clooney) went to President Roosevelt and asked to create a team of intelligent art experts who would go into the war to recover the stolen art. Allowed to assemble a seven man team, Stokes recruited: Museum Director James Granger (Matt Damon), Architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), French Art Dealer Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), British Art Enthusiast Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Theater Director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). With this team ready to die to protect priceless art and the culture of many people, they shipped out into the war.
Deciding to split up in order to cover more ground, Granger takes on the responsibility of traveling to newly unoccupied Paris to meet with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a Parisian Art Historian who may know where the stolen art was headed. While Granger was dealing with her, the other men broke into groups to search in German cities for the missing art. Tensions only escalade when the Führer issues a letter that calls for the destruction of everything if he’s caught or killed. As the men search furiously, they face war and the reality that not many people cared about the art. When the men lose members, their cause grows and they search harder and more intelligently. Eventually, the men recovered much of the stolen art and also helped to end the war when discovering the Nazi’s reserves.
George Clooney has directed, co-written, co-produced, and acted in The Monuments Men and it’s clear that he brings some passion to his film making. I was perplexed when I learned that in the Monuments Men novel, there were over 300 men and women who were helping recover the art. Making a seven man team is easier, but the lack of female involvement is odd. This film was originally slated to be released in December of 2013, but was pushed to 2014 for “special effects being unfinished”. Now, having seen the film, I don’t believe that’s the case at all. In a month full of Oscar titans like American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Her, this film didn’t stand a chance. Now, it’s supposed special effects have been fixed, but the film hasn’t been. It’s not bad, but it’s not great.
I really applaud Clooney for making this film for a number of reasons. For starters, he’s George Clooney and he could choose to direct any movie he wanted to. What he did, was adapt a novel that tells a story that no one else would likely tell. The film itself almost resembles the subject matter that it’s dealing with. “Who would really be interested in saving art?” “Who would really be interested in seeing a war film about people saving art?” Those are questions that the film and critics have addressed and I think it’s wonderful that Clooney chose to tell this story. We forget how important art is to our many cultures and how hard people work to create that art. We take it for granted now because we can see anything on our phones and because looking at art is “less-interesting” than most things.
As far as the acting goes, most of the performances are very solid. Blanchett stands out among the bunch because she has a great character with a great arc. She’s reluctant to trust the monuments men because she doesn’t want them taking the art back. The concern in her eyes and in her body language is fantastic and when she comes around to the idea, we get to see a new side to her. Clooney is caring and dedicated to the mission and he’s great. Damon is dedicated and intelligent and he’s great. Bill Murray plays Bill Murray and he’s great. Jean Dujardin is funny and French and he’s great. John Goodman is hilarious and great. Bob Balaban is really funny and quirky and he’s great. All in all, the acting is great and everyone works really well together. They have a great time, but they’re also each passionate in their own ways about what they’re doing.
As great as everyone is together and on their own, they all do a lot and say a lot that doesn’t make much sense for the story’s sake. The tone in the film is as lost as the art that they’re trying to recover. The only problem here, is that the tone is never recovered. On minute, this film is a light comedy that takes it self semi-seriously. The next minute, the film attempts at being tension-filled and warlike. Another minute, the film is dramatic and tries to be something it isn’t. The tone is never consistent and it’s hard to comprehend whether or not you should take the film seriously, or if the film is taking itself seriously.
The other big issue in the film is with its writing. First of all, the dialog is nothing special. There is some art and war jargon every now and again, but for the most part everyone speaks frankly and cracks jokes. There’s never a big speech that stands out or any writing that really connects you to the film. The characters are fun and interesting on the surface, but not much more than that. As far as the story goes, problems are solved relatively easily and when the film nears the end, everything is rushed. Once a big event happens, four more like it occur within a five-minute window as if we’re supposed to believe that they all were quick and easy tasks. What’s occurring is interesting, but it’s gone in an instant and it seems somewhat-unimportant at the end.
As admirable as The Monuments Men is, it’s just nothing special and doesn’t make you care too much about it. I tried looking at the film from an artists (or someone who works with art) prospective and that helped me enjoy some things, but you can’t excuse a poor script that doesn’t hold your attention. I’m happy that this story is being told, but I wish that it was being told in a better way. The acting is fine, but it can’t save the film from being just okay. If this film still sounds intriguing to you, go see it and go in imagining that it’s what you love that the men are trying to save.
The Monuments Men Trailer