By: Daniel Reynolds
Let me take a moment, son, to educate you on the ways of the film industry. You see, when a movie is made the studio that produced it has to figure out the most beneficial (i.e. lucrative) time to release it. Sitting on an action blockbuster? May-July. Have a smaller scale thriller? August-September. Gunning for awards? Oct-Dec. Just want to slide it out and make whatever money you can from it? Jan-Feb. This brings us to the case of The Monuments Men. It was supposed to come out in December, but lo, was mysteriously released in February. If history has taught us anything: this bodes poorly.
Now, on paper, history can sometimes be pretty drab. Grand sweeping narratives, dry language, boring technical minutia; those interesting touches of character can sometimes be swept up and lost in the broader tide of narrative. Film alleviates this – or at least it can attempt to. Where history lessons can be dull, film can excite. And few periods of history are more exciting, more tragic, more all-consuming than the theatre of World War II. Just think of the perspectives alone: the Holocaust, the Battle of the Bulge, the Western front, post-war fallout, Pearl Harbour, urban underground resistance; even Hitler got his own movie. My point is: there always seems to be more meat on the WWII bone.
Enter George Clooney, filmmaker and a good soldier of a different sort – a Hollywood veteran. He co-wrote and directed The Monuments Men, yet another WWII film. But, believe me, I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then I started seeing the negative press, I looked at the new release date, and I worried. Could Clooney (and producing/writing partner Grant Heslov) upend an historic trend and release a quality film in February? I had to know.
The answer was quickly, sadly, apparent. Clooney, despite starring as Danny Ocean three times, did not retain any lessons on what makes for a good caper film (never mind the historical or war elements). It was a caper film he was trying to make, right? My boy, we have to start from the beginning.
Clooney introduces us to the situation: the Germans are losing the war but in a pique of delusional grandeur, they’re stealing all of the art of western Europe to be housed in Hitler’s Fuhrer Museum in Linz, Austria. As a motivation, this is strong. Hitler’s forces are systematically crushing the history and culture (never mind the actual lives) of an entire continent of people. It would make any of us, and particularly art historians, angry. Clooney, as Lt. Frank Stokes, devises a plan. He’ll assemble a team of men to sneak behind enemy lines, to track down stolen artifacts and return them to their rightful owners. If this has a bit of an Ocean’s 11 meets Indiana “It belongs in a museum!” Jones vibe, well, um, push that thought from your mind because you are about to be disappointed.
Despite a premise filled with potential, we are immediately stranded with a handful of thinly drawn characters. We get very little context as to why these men are chosen, what skills they have, how they fit together. The team, consisting of Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville seem to have history together. Balaban and Murray playfully joust, Clooney supports Bonneville, and so on. I’d mention their character’s names but I’d instantly forgotten them upon leaving the theatre.
The problem is one of pace. The Monuments Men speeds through the assembly of the team (it almost literally happens over the opening credits), tosses us into a wartime situation, and then sits back and expects us to fall in love with these characters purely because of who is playing them. I mean, I love Bill Murray, but in a scene when he sheds a tear while listening to some recorded Christmas music, I was only struck by how little I felt about his character. Balaban’s character doesn’t like being called ‘Private’ but we don’t know why. For stretches I forgot Goodman was in the film and poor Dujardin is asked to do little more than flash that fantastically mugging smile of his. No one is allowed to be charming. Oh yeah, there is a sub-plot involving Cate Blanchett’s determined French resistance fighter, but at times it feels like she has wandered in from a different movie, one with momentum and tension and a sense of what is at stake.
So, OK, the characters are fairly blank, still this is WWII, the big one, clearly situations could arise that could be exciting. Sadly, wrong again. Unlike the lean screenplay behind Good Night and Good Luck and even The Ides of March, Clooney and Heslov’s script for Monuments Men has the feel of a narrative work with pages out of order. At one moment the men are together, then they split up, things go well then suddenly there is gun fire. Vignettes emerge that presumably are meant to build some sort of narrative foundation, but instead dig us deeper into indifference. Men die and we shrug our shoulders. To make matters worse, Clooney provides deeply smarmy voice over narration that reads like out-takes from a bad History Channel miniseries. It is all super serious and deferential, while the film bumbles around in copper mines and French towns.
We’re supposed to be made to understand the sacrifice these men made, the risks they took to save not human lives, but cultural ones. The point is a salient one, but delicate, and the narration and subsequent story is so ham-handed that you can’t help but laugh at the absurd presentation. We came for a film and instead got a dry, disorganized history lesson. By the time the men are saving one last statue from ruin (the incoming Soviets are claiming all the art as reparations for the lives lost), I had forgotten why it was supposed to be important. Someone had died over it, but without using IMDB I couldn’t tell you who.
For a film that wants us to take history very seriously, that preaches the value of art above all things (even human life), The Monuments Men does a disservice to the memory of the men involved in the actual story this film is based on. Likewise, I wonder about the people involved in making this film. Didn’t Clooney at some point realize he had a jumbled mess on his hands? Couldn’t Murray or Goodman ask what the hell their characters were supposed to be doing? What we’re left with at the end of Monuments Men is the image of art outliving its creators and protectors, to serve as an immortal record of the people that we are and the people that we were. It’s a shame then that the makers of this film will probably hope to erase it from our collective memories as soon as possible.