Home > Art, Film, History, Reviews > Film Review: The Monuments Men

Film Review: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men (2014; Directed by George Clooney)

The contemporary World War Two film finds itself in a tough spot. The grand stories of the 20th Century’s defining conflict have been told onscreen, and they are among Hollywood’s canonical texts: Patton, The Great Escape, The Best Years of Our Lives, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List. The big narratives of the Big War have all been told and often retold; POW films, Pacific theatre films, and Holocaust films are all bursting subgenres in the larger war film megagenre. Even the war’s margins have produced classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia; post-modernist deconstructions (Inglourious Basterds) and art film digressions (The Thin Red Line) have predominated in recent years, though some traditionalists (Clint Eastwood with his Janus projects Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) have reached into the cynically discarded themes of honour and duty for inspiration. Fundamentally, though WWII films are still made, it seems like a largely spent mine narratively speaking; the precious metals have mostly been extracted.

George Clooney’s The Monuments Men typifies this problem: as interesting as it may be, it seems (painfully at times) like a less-vital side-story to the central drama of World War Two. It doesn’t present an unappealing story, though it does present that story with uneven earnestness, stiffness, and the dull middlebrow self-regard of a prestige film that isn’t ever good enough to earn the sobriquet. Though my own familiarity with the efforts of the titular agents of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program stems more from The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas than from the account by Robert M. Edsel that was the source for Clooney and Grant Heslov’s screenplay, I was pre-invested in the story told by The Monuments Men to a greater extent than much of its audience. And if even I found the film unengaging and inconsequential, there were clearly some issues in its execution.

For those unfamiliar with the Allies’ wartime program to safeguard, preserve, and recover the unprecedented number of works of art, architecture, and furniture either looted, threatened, or displaced by the war in Europe, Clooney provides a useful summation at the movie’s opening in the form of a pitch to the U.S. authorities that are his project’s potential patrons. As Allied forces press inexorably towards Berlin post-D-Day, Frank Stokes (Clooney) highlights the existential threat to many of the continent’s greatest masterpieces. Military types would sooner blow up a medieval monastery than risk losing a man to capture it with its historic treasures intact (as happened at Montecassino in Italy), and the Nazis under failed artist Adolf Hitler and avid collector Hermann Göring were taking truckloads of paintings, sculptures, and other objets d’art from conquered territories (and from well-off Jewish families shipped to concentration camps, concerning which the film offers only a soft-focus symbolic gesture) for either their own villas or for a massive museum planned in the Führer’s Austria hometown of Linz. The cultural patrimony, Stokes insists, must be saved for the sake of future generations.

Stokes’ unseen audience (implied to be the President) expresses some pointed doubts about the relative value of art to soldier’s lives that neither Stokes nor the movie ever answers satisfactorily. Still, Stokes gets the green light and assembles a team of mostly middle-aged white men from the country’s top cultural institutions to be shipped to the front to do the job. There’s a young curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Matt Damon), an architect (Bill Murray), an overweight sculptor and professor (John Goodman), a sharp-tongued art critic (Bob Balaban), even British and French academics (Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) for some international colour.

Even if the war is turning rapidly in the Allies’ favour, the front remains an active war zone and is not without its dangers. The unit is shot at and shoots back (not everyone lives to see VE-Day), and must not only pursue dissembling German agents of the Reich’s systematic art looting infrastructure but also must locate the missing masterpieces before the Soviet Red Army does, lest they fall forever behind the expanding Iron Curtain that was the main cost of Churchill and Roosevelt’s Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles that was Stalin to win the war.

There’s plenty of narrative, dramatic, and comedic meat here, but Clooney doesn’t seem to know how to grind it down into anything tastier than a street hot dog. The getting-the-team-together montage is perfunctory, as the fish-out-of-water element of high-culture types going to war is played for a laugh or two in basic training. The caper genre potential is badly squandered thereafter. The squad is quickly split up to hunt down specific artworks and the ensemble impact is diminished (one feels that Clooney was working around busy schedules and limited availability windows with his cast). Murray and Balaban are great together (they have a nice exchange with a German scout that they happen across at night in a forest), Goodman and Dujardin less so, and the paternal Clooney floats about with his mustache and smile of indulgent self-possession.

Damon’s James Granger, meanwhile, is saddled with a stop-start sort-of romance subplot in repatriated Paris with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). Based on the remarkable Rose Valland, who worked with the French Resistance and secretly catalogued thousands of displaced works of art while working at a gallery under the noses of the German occupiers, Simone is reduced to glaring at Nazis and alternately dismissing and flirting with Granger, with whom she has little chemistry (blame the generally befuddled Damon, who seems to mainly be here to help sell the movie as a species of WWII Ocean’s Eleven prequel). Valland deserves a film of her own, and Blanchett would have been a fine choice to play a more fleshed-out version of her, but she’s just another anecdote in a film that consists entirely of them.

This attempt to shoehorn every notable story from the Monuments Men epic into this one square, inert film is central to its failure. It’s too busy getting to all of these art world anecdotes (the Ghent Altarpiece being found in a salt mine, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna rushed out ahead of the Russian advance, the loss of masterpieces taken by the Nazis) to craft an overarching narrative of intelligence, pathos, or dramatic heft. It never earns its grandiloquent closing thesis statement about the preservation of cultural heritage (much of what they’re saving is just rich people’s stuff, lest we forget), thus making it seem like the frivolity that the army brass felt cultural protection in a war zone to be. The Monuments Men attempts to tell a compelling and resonant story from the margins of World War Two, but becomes lost in those very margins. The great tales of the conflict have been told, but that need not mean that there are no stories left that could be great. There was plenty of reasons to expect that The Monuments Men could have been one of those stories, and a marked disappointment that Clooney wasn’t able to tell it in the way it deserved.

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Categories: Art, Film, History, Reviews
  1. July 23, 2014 at 11:24 pm

    Good review. The movie could have been way better than it actually was, but the cast was still charming enough to make this an enjoyable time.

  1. January 1, 2015 at 11:01 am
  2. March 5, 2015 at 3:58 pm

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