Monuments Men, The (United States, 2014)February 07, 2014
The Monuments Men is a World War 2 story, but it's unlike the traditional World War 2 stories we have become familiar with over the years. Many of the historical touchstones are present, including Normandy and The Battle of the Bulge. Roosevelt, Truman, Hitler, and Goering all make appearances. However, The Monuments Men is more about the aftermath of the war's great moments than the participation in them. These characters don't join in the bloody fray of D-Day; they arrive sometime after the beach has been taken. They don't fight in The Battle of the Bulge; they show up after the German retreat has begun. People die in The Monuments Men but in offhand ways rather than in the thick of combat.
The unit of eight men is under the command of Frank Stokes (George Clooney), an aging art expert with movie-star good looks. His group, dubbed "The Monuments Men," consists primarily of old historians and professors with a simple goal - save as much of Hitler's stolen art as possible. As the war draws to a close, the Nazis intend to embark upon an orgy of destruction. The Russians want the art as "reparations" for the damage inflected upon their country. The Western allies, however, intend to reclaim it and restore it to those from whom it was stolen. The seven men serving under Stokes include three grizzled Yanks - Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) - looking to do their part in the war effort; Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), a Brit searching for redemption; Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a Frenchman in exile; and the younger James Granger (Matt Damon) and Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). Once in Europe, they split into teams to go in search of the missing treasure then, when they locate promising leads, reunite to pursue them. For the most part, they follow in the wake of the advancing army - near but never at the front.
There are several significant plot-related problems with The Monuments Men. The episodic nature of the story disallows any sort of narrative momentum to build. There's a lot of switching back and forth between the teams but too little time is spent with any of them for the characters to grow and the story to cohere. In many cases, I didn't know the characters' names - I identified them by the actors playing them. It's a bad sign when the film doesn't draw you in sufficiently for stars like George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett (who plays an art curator and member of the French Resistance) to disappear into their characters. And it's a definite problem when you think of Donald Jeffries as "the guy from Downton Abbey" or Jean Claude Clermont as "the guy who won an Oscar for The Artist." Most of the characters get A Big Moment but not much beyond that. The movie, which runs a hair under two hours, feels like it needs at least another hour to reach critical mass. I wonder how much was left on the cutting room floor.
With talent like this in front of the camera, it can't be all bad. The cast brings 17 Oscar nominations and five wins (with a sixth likely pending) to the party and there's not an inauthentic performance to be found. The most stirring moment is provided by Bill Murray as, while taking a shower, he hears the voice of his daughter singing a Christmas carol. It's a lovely, moving scene - the kind of thing The Monuments Men needs more of. The film also looks great. Not only does it effectively capture the look of wartime Europe, but it reflects the feel of some of the war films made during the 1960s and 1970s.
Certainly, the story told by The Monuments Men is worth telling and it's easy to see why a luminary like Clooney would be sufficiently attracted to want to direct it. Unfortunately, this treatment, written by Clooney and long-time collaborator Grant Heslov, isn't the best fit. One gets the sense that The Monuments Men might work better as a longer form project. There's simply too much going on to cram into two hours and the end result is a feeling that pieces of the tale are being skipped while others are rushed through. The movie does a good job of illustrating why protecting art from the Nazi scourge was important but it's far less effective fleshing out the personalities of the people who did the protecting.
Monuments Men, The (United States, 2014)
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas
Screenplay: George Clooney & Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Alexandre Desplat
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures