THE MONUMENTS MEN Review

When the first trailer for George Clooney's latest directorial endeavor premiered it was clear that this wasn't going to be the large, dramatic, Oscar-bait piece everyone expected it to be given the caliber of the cast, the subject matter and the release date. We were originally scheduled to receive The Monuments Men on Christmas Day last year, but after The Wolf of Wall Street was pushed to that date it simply became too crowded. Clooney knew what he had on his hands here though and he knew he wasn't going for Oscar gold, but even more impressive is that he didn't fold under the pressure of these stipulations and force what felt unnatural upon this story to make an overly-serious or pretentious film that would fit squarely into the wheelhouse of highly-praised, but undeserving best picture winners. It is nice to know Clooney made what he wanted to make, what he first envisioned upon reading Robert M. Edsel's nonfiction book chronicling the adventures of these museum directors, curators and art historians that were out of their element, but took the risks anyway to preserve the culture this art represented. In that first trailer, one of the biggest signs that this wasn't going to be exactly what we expected was the music and it is in the soundtrack that we find more than anything the revealing nature of what Clooney was going for. It is not about the epic sacrifices of war, it is not touching on the moral dilemma of what war actually accomplishes or if the lives lost are lost for good reason or a justified outcome, but it simply takes war for what it is and tells an interesting adventure story while consistently asking our group of protagonists if during this time of war, is their endeavor too small? Sure, there are plenty of complaints to be made about The Monuments Men as it could have very easily been more entertaining, more fleshed out, less awkward and more authentic, but for what it is and what it seems intent on accomplishing we get the version Clooney wanted to deliver. Despite these complaints though I was very much intrigued by what these men were trying to accomplish, what they stood for and how their story turned out. This may not be the best interpretation of their story that could have been made, but it is a beautiful and professionally rendered version that does well to pay tribute to their mission statement.

From left: Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin
make up George Clooney's The Monuments Men.
It is early 1944 when we are introduced to Clooney's Frank Stokes, a professor who brings the importance of preserving this art to the attention of the President as well as examples of how we were already losing large amounts of it. President Roosevelt discloses to Stokes that all of the young art students are already in the midst of war, fighting and that it may be asking a lot, but if Stokes wants to save the art he is going to have to do it himself. Obviously he is up for it and we realize this as he shows up at The Met where James Granger (Matt Damon) is the curator and proposes the idea of going through with a plan that, on initial thought, would seem crazy and slightly impossible. Granger is up for it though, he is a good-spirited lover of art and the toughest to convince as the opening credits sequence introduces us to the rest of the guys. There is Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) all of which have ties to the world of the arts and are keen on joining Stokes and Granger on their mission. The film has ample opportunity to play up its more comical tendencies with the sequences of these older, out of shape and unacquainted men with basic training, but more than anything the first half hour or so of the film feels more staged and splashed together than anything else. We don't get much character definition and instead come to be stuck with one too many overlapping stories as the large cast is split up into groups and the film tries to focus on each of them as if forced to give each character their due rather than focusing on one point of achievement that each member is contributing to and would flush out the story and the people better. The story makes sense, it is a cohesive piece that builds to a satisfying conclusion that I thought re-enforced the point of the mission very well, but our experience through the trials of figuring out where the art that Hitler stole was being taken and how to rescue it became boring at points and weren't able to resonate with the audience because of that lack of character development. There was no doubt more than enough material to cover the two-hour run time of the film yet it periodically feels as if they were filling space with unnecessary and obligatory conversation that was neither entertaining or moved the story along, but only served to drive home a running joke about Damon's characters horrible French.

The trouble with something like The Monuments Men is that the bar of expectation has been set so high because of the talent involved that we expect more than something like this where Clooney has seemed to take a note from Spielberg's action/adventure tales of the 80's or the westerns of yesteryear where the reality of the bigger situation is given this lighter, more humorous tone by the group of people the movie concerns itself with and their involvement in the overriding atmosphere. It would be difficult to comprehend a completely serious movie about these older men who are essentially forced to dress up like soldiers and go into the areas of battle (granted, all of this takes place as the war is coming to an end) where they come up against captains and generals who don't care about what they are trying to do, but are simply trying to survive and get home while keeping as many of their men alive as possible. You can't argue with that logic and you can't take away the admirable task these art historians are trying accomplish either, no matter how inconsequential it may seem at the time. It is a fish out of water story at its core and thus is the reason Clooney decided to go with the more comical tones while also delivering some crushing moments that bring us back down to reality, to the actual context of what they've gotten themselves into. As best as it could be, though it feels jarring at times, these shifts are achieved appropriately while not making the audience feel like the characters or the film in general are making light of death or war, but rather they are just keeping in mind the tone that goes along with what role these men played in relation to that bigger picture. The storytelling tool that is used, and smartly introduced early in the film, is deeper reasoning for why this type of task deserves attention and that is pointing out that Hitler had a love for art, that he was a failed art student and likely had a vendetta for those who were able to achieve success in an area he adored and strove towards but that his talent would never allow him to be a part of. That this wasn't simply a tyrannical leader destroying everything is his path because he could, but that it was something of a personal wish of The Fuehrer that these priceless, timeless pieces be collected and sent to him so that he may build the biggest museum the world has ever seen and keep it for himself. One has to wonder how Hitler would ultimately have felt about hoarding these pieces that could never truly be his, but while that question is impossible to answer the film at least allows us to feel redeemed by the fact there were human beings willing to make sure that didn't happen.

James Granger (Damon) and Claire Simone (Cate Blachett) stumble upon Hitler's stolen art.
The Monuments Men, with its hesitant tone and roster of characters that are interesting yet underdeveloped, is not a film that will stay with you. In fact, it is probably the most indifferent you will feel about a film with such an impressive cast or director at its helm yet, for me, there was something completely satisfying about it. It would be a lie to say it isn't a competent piece of work or that the performances weren't at least earnest portrayals of what were no doubt the most earnest of men. Damon, while missing from much of the core action is paired with Cate Blanchett's Claire Simone, a French woman who works as a curator for the Germans but is in over her head as she is trying to save the art being stolen as much as Damon and his gang are. The two play a game of if they can trust one another, it taking up much of the film, that only results in what again feels like a forced character confrontation of if they will or will not serve the requirement of a romantic subplot. I like that Blanchett's character doesn't solely exist to serve as a love interest even though she may really want to. What I didn't understand, even if it was true to the actual events, were why they would bother introducing that possibility when they already had multiple storylines going that might have better served the running times attention. Blanchett is fine in her role and she gives off just the right air of confidence and arrogance for the majority of here scenes making the vulnerability she shows in her final scene with Damon all the more out of left field. Each of our principle cast is paired with another resulting in little segments of Clooney and Bonneville, Goodman and Dujardin and Murray and Balaban. As you can imagine, Murray and Balaban form the most entertaining of odd couples, but there is no weight to any of their conversations because we don't feel we actually know them. The same could be said for Goodman and Dujardin who are both more than endearing yet there missions they go on in these pairs don't feel as if they're building to anything specific, that they are supposed to serve as character development, but end up feeling disconnected and not meshing with the overarching storyline. Clooney, on the other hand, gives his character a specific task due to the outcome of Bonneville's character who we never get to know well enough for his actions to truly hit home. These guys are all impressive actors, but they have little to do here because the film is primarily a fancy table cloth nicely blanketing the obvious aspects of this story while never really digging into the meat of what these men did for true preservation of our history.