Once this was pushed back from a holiday release date to February, despite early rumors that it would be a major Oscar contender, I knew something was not quite right. And sure enough, while not a bad film, The Monuments Men is nowhere near the level of an Oscar contender, and even the weakest Best Picture nominee (Dallas Buyers Club) is a more successful film. Taken on its own, Monuments Men has its moments, but is overall too serious to be a romp and too light to be an effective war film. What George Clooney was trying to say with this film is not clear, as murky as it is.
The film involves art expert Frank Stokes (Clooney) who makes the case to FDR that the art treasures stolen by the Nazis represent a vital part of Europe’s cultural heritage and must be retrieved. He’s given the green light and assembles a team:
- James Granger (Matt Damon), an art historian (or something like that);
- Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), an architect;
- Walter Garfield (John Goodman), a sculptor;
- Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), I don’t remember his profession, but he openly expresses a desire to kill somebody personally, preferably Hitler, so he’s my favorite;
- Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), an artist (I think);
- Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), an art expert and supposed drunk (more on that later).
After basic training, this motley group is sent to Europe, whereupon Granger is sent to Paris to meet up with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a curator who has been tangling with a particularly obnoxious Nazi officer (Justus von Dohnányi), and who has clues as to the fate of the stolen art. Campbell and Savitz go one way, Garfield and Clermont another, Jeffries his own way, and Stokes acts as their C.O., essentially. There’s not a strong plot, more a series of episodes, some tragic, some suspenseful, some comic.
Jeffries, trying to prevent a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo from falling into the hands of the Nazis, gets himself killed by revealing his hiding place (he cocks his gun and an officer goes to investigate) and doing a tremendously bad job of shooting (He only hits the officer in the arm, at a distance of maybe 10 feet. What is this, the last scene of Chinatown?) while failing to prevent the theft or learn about where the statue is being taken. Simone develops a crush on Granger, but he, being married, keeps it completely professional. Clermont and Campbell go for a drive in the woods, and happen upon a group of Nazis, who shoot Clermont, and despite Campbell’s attempts, they find no medical help and Clermont dies in his arms. The film’s loose construction makes a synopsis impractical, but suffice to say, in the end, most of the art is safely retrieved and everyone else lives happily ever after.
Monuments Men is a rather odd film in many respects, but these all go back to one question: why was this film made? Reputedly, it’s not especially historically accurate (all of the character names, for example, are fictionalized), and the subject matter was touched upon (though more from the French perspective) in John Frankenheimer’s The Train. Granted, 50 years is long enough for Hollywood to cover similar ground a second time, but from the first, I wondered just what drama Clooney and co. could find in this story; it’s one of those stories that people like to refer to as “stranger than fiction” or “perfect material for a movie”, yet which must be reworked (fictionalized, usually) to create some kind of a narrative. The Train used the subject of Nazi art thefts as the basis for a chase thriller. The Monuments Men, however, never quite finds the narrative in this material, but wanders from episode to episode across France, Belgium, the Nethelands, and Germany, without much dramatic thrust or narrative tissue.
Some critics have suggested Clooney was trying to make a throwback to 50s and 60s war films like The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen (David Edelstein joked that it could be called ‘The Tasteful Dozen’), and this idea is supported by the occasionally light-hearted tone and more so by Alexandre Desplat’s homage of a score; bouncy, sometimes bombastic, generally quite invigorating to listen to, it’s by far the best part of the film. But unlike those films, Monuments Men lacks cohesion or a real sense of purpose; things happen, and the film ends. There’s no real sense of accomplishment. We’re reminded (with the help of several speeches) that Europe’s art heritage is worth saving, even given the sacrifices necessary, but even if one agrees with this sentiment, the film does not make an especially compelling case for it. At the end of the film, Stokes is asked whether Jeffries would think his sacrifice worthwhile. Stokes replies in the affirmative, and when asked if, decades hence, he too will think it worthwhile, we cut to an older Stokes (played by Nick Clooney, George’s father), who does. The viewer may not be so sure.
The script, by Clooney and Grant Heslov, has some good scenes and some snappy banter, but it also proves more than a bit faulty. Jeffries, supposedly a tragic drunk and a disappointment to his family, is completely on-the-ball and serious about his duties from the moment he’s called into service (and we first meet him having an amiable drink with a young woman–his embarrassing run-ins with the law are kept to a brief exchange between Stokes and Granger). When we first meet Simone, she’s asked to fetch a champagne glass for her nemesis, and she makes sure to spit in it first; it’s a relatable yet rather pointless bit of passive-aggression. Later, when she discovers the officer making off with a trainload of art, he shoots at her from a distance, failing totally to hit her–she doesn’t even flinch. It’s a baffling scene. We next see her in prison, apparently arrested on suspicion of being a collaborator. We never see her arrest, and it’s not until well into the scene that we learn what she’s doing there. Oh, and the officer at one point tells her that her brother (a Resistance figure) has been killed; she looks upset briefly and he is never mentioned again. All very murky.
Oh, and there’s a silly running gag about Granger’s terrible command of French. It’s pretty dumb. There’s also the implication that Quebecois French is a bastardization, which I’m sure went over well in Canada.
What keeps the film somewhat afloat is the acting; Clooney is a mostly expository figure as Stokes, but he has a good scene where he tells a smug Nazi that he’ll be reading about the Nazi’s execution while eating a bagel in Sid Melman’s deli in New York. Though he gets second billing, Damon is really the heart of the film, and he does just fine, but the role doesn’t ask much of him. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban have a fun chemistry together, and their scenes are some of the film’s best, including a bit where they stumble upon Simone’s nemesis and, craftily, subtly, find him out. This, and a scene where Campbell listens to a recording of his daughter singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (hampered a little by the overwrought rendition), make Murray arguably the MVP of this particular outing. Goodman is fine as well, handling the more serious aspects of the role quite effectively; he is well and truly overdue for Academy recognition (I maintain he and not Alan Arkin should’ve been nominated for Argo). Dujardin and Bonneville have relatively little to do, but they do their job well.
Blanchett was a rather odd casting choice, and her accent is a bit off, but she’s not quite as bad as I was expecting. Still…was there no French actress in the running?
Clooney’s direction is efficient, but his writing ultimately lets him down. The production values are fine, though, the sets and costumes in particular being a testament to the lavish budget.
Too serious to be a romp, but too light and muddled to be an effective war drama, The Monuments Men is far less than the sum of its parts, a clumsy, meandering film that entertains in the moment but never quite manages to catch fire. It actually did pretty well at the box-office ($71 million and counting), possibly out of nostalgia (it’s not like we get a lot of war films these days), or possibly because there was fuck-all in terms of competition. I don’t know. If the cast or subject matter appeal, by all means give it a look, but I’d suggest giving The Train a shot instead.