Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: George Clooney
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban.
George Clooney’s films as a director (Goodnight, And Good Luck, political thriller The Ides Of March, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, etc) have explored some serious themes, and he has brought some intelligence to their provocative nature. Given his previous efforts behind the camera, The Monuments Men seems even more disappointing and lightweight.
The Monuments Men is based on the true story of a group of art experts sent into war torn Europe in 1944 to try and rescue precious works of art before the Nazis destroyed them. In 1944 it was becoming obvious that the Nazis were losing the war. During the war the Nazis had been acquiring valuable works of art from either the private collections of Jewish families or some of the major art galleries of Europe. Precious Picassos, Michelangelo sculptures and the Van Eyck created Ghent alter piece were amongst some of the famous art works confiscated by the Germans. Most of these works were destined for the planned Fuhrer museum which Hitler was planning to build in his home town of Linz in Austria.
As the war drew to a close, the Nazis were about to follow Hitler’s so-called Nero Decree, which said that if he were dead then all the works of art were to be destroyed. As Frank Stokes (George Clooney) argues though, if you destroy a people’s culture and heritage it is almost as if they didn’t exist.
Stokes is charged by President Roosevelt to assemble a team of experts to try and save these valuable works of art before they are destroyed, or fall into the hands of the Russians, who are also advancing on Berlin. Stokes’ team comprises of James Granger (Matt Damon), the Harvard educated head curator of the Fogg Museum and art restorer; sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman); Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray); the roguish alcoholic ex-British soldier Donald Jeffries (Downton Abbey‘s Hugh Bonneville); New York theatre impresario and art expert Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban); and expatriate Jean-Claude Clermont (Oscar winner Jean Dujardin from The Artist, etc), who has extensive knowledge of French museums.
While Stokes leads his team behind enemy lines in a race against time, Granger is sent to Paris to liaise with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), the mousy art gallery curator who knows which art the Nazis have confiscated and also where it is located. But she is initially suspicious of Granger and his motives, but eventually comes to recognise that he is genuinely concerned about finding the art works and returning them to their rightful owners where possible. The team learns that much of the art is stored in various mines located across Europe and the race is on to locate them ahead of the advancing Russian army.
As Clooney gathers his merry band of art experts though, the film comes across like a caper comedy, a version of his Ocean’s Eleven trilogy set against the epic backdrop of World War Two – an Ocean’s half dozen if you will. These aged, out-of-condition academics, unaccustomed to fighting or combat, are thrown into a war zone with some devastating consequences. The first sight of Murray in uniform, clambering over an obstacle course during basic training, reminded me of Stripes. The somewhat jokey flavour of the material is reminiscent of films like Kelly’s Heroes. The Monuments Men even has some resonances of John Frankenheimer’s taut WWII thriller The Train, in which a squad of partisans led by Burt Lancaster tried to stop the Germans from shipping rare art treasures on a train.
Based on the book written by Robert M Edsel and Bret Witter, this should have been a fascinating story, but as written by Clooney and his regular collaborator and co-producer Grant Heslov, The Monuments Men is a bit underwhelming. Clearly Clooney is not interested in giving a history lesson here. He plays a serious situation and themes for laughs, and it seems as though he is struggling to decide on the right tone he should use in approaching the material. In doing so he trivialises this important episode in twentieth century history.
There is some grating rivalry and good natured barbs between Campbell and Savitz that also jar when juxtaposed against the more serious themes of war, heroism and art. The film is also structurally uneven, as it veers between some dramatic confrontations and lightweight glib humour. The bombastic score from Alexandre Desplat is also reminiscent of many of the gung ho war movies of the 70s. And the film only scratches the surface of a key question of whether a work of art is more important than a human life.
The Monuments Men is more like an old fashioned boy’s own adventure story, which often cheapens the drama. The film has been shot on locations in France, Germany by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who also provided the bleak, austere visuals for the recent Nebraska, and it certainly looks good.
But Clooney has certainly attracted a stellar ensemble cast of A-listers, including four Oscar winners, to flesh out the characters, and it seems like they enjoyed themselves immensely despite their characters being largely underdeveloped. Clooney himself is smooth and suave as the affable Stokes, bringing plenty of charm to his role, while Damon (replacing Daniel Craig) is charming and comical as Granger, whose attempts to speak French are comical. Blanchett, in her first major role since Blue Jasmine, brings a ruthless quality to her role as Claire, the mousy art gallery clerk who watched as Goering and the Nazis ransacked some of the finest collections of Paris.
Beefy Goodman also brings some good natured humour and warmth to his underdeveloped role, while Murray plays his character with the same droll, deadpan approach that has almost become his signature style on screen.
The story of the stolen art works was also told with much more authority and insight in the 2006 documentary The Rape Of Europa, and there is a documentary called Hunting Hitler’s Stolen Treasure: The Monuments Men that deals with the story with much more gravitas and insight.