‘The Monuments Men’ Review

Published 8 months ago by , Updated October 17th, 2014 at 9:10 pm,

Matt Damon George Clooney Monuments Men Movie The Monuments Men Review

Fans of historical dramas will likely find enough reason to enjoy The Monuments Men but the movie wastes a powerful source material story.

Based on a true story, The Monuments Men follows a team of art experts and museum directors, led by Frank Stokes (George Clooney), who are tasked with protecting cultural treasures from destruction and theft during World War II. As Adolf Hitler and the Nazis marched across Europe, they plundered valuables from Jews and non-Jews alike, stockpiling gold, looting historical landmarks, and stealing thousands of priceless art pieces (sculptures, paintings, and photographs, among others).

In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the formation of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (the MFAA) – a group of specialists sent into Germany during the closing of the war to find stolen collections and return them to their rightful owners. Yet, even as Allied forces take control of the war, and end the Nazi campaign, Hitler loyalists begin burning storehouses full of cultural artifacts simply to spite their enemies – leaving the Monuments Men with precious little time to enter war torn cities and find the missing works, before they are lost forever.

George Clooney and Matt Damon Monuments Men Movie The Monuments Men Review

George Clooney and Matt Damon in ‘The Monuments Men’

The Monuments Men is directed by George Clooney and based on Robert M. Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History – which features thought-provoking rumination on the importance of protecting cultural paragons in a time of war and chaos. It’s a touching, and heartbreaking concept: men and women who will lay down their lives to protect beloved works of art – a concept that, without question, serves as a great feature film foundation. Unfortunately, in spite of an all-star cast and fascinating source material, Clooney’s film is clumsy and unfocused – bouncing back and forth between buddy comedy and (understandably) dark scenes of wartime suffering. The result is an entertaining but extremely uneven film that should satisfy historical drama fans but falls very short of realizing the full potential of its gripping premise.

As with most Hollywood adaptations of real-life events, The Monuments Men takes a lot of liberties. Still, few of the alterations make for a better or more impactful story; instead, moviegoers are presented with a group of one-note (albeit likable) cliches that succeed in advancing several comedy setups but fail to balance The Monuments Men with equally affecting World War II drama. Clooney includes heartbreaking details – Nazi child soldiers and a barrel of gold tooth fillings (stolen from concentration camp victims), for example – but the writer/actor/director/producer rarely allows somber moments to resonate before cutting to the next scene. Nearly every example of physical or emotional horror in the film is almost immediately glossed over, i.e. explained away but rarely shown, with little time for meaningful development or reflection.

John Goodman Matt Damon Bill Murray George Clooney The Monuments Men Movie The Monuments Men Review

Monuments Men: John-Goodman, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, and George Clooney

Alternatively, moviegoers are afforded a series of (mostly) disconnected but entertaining setups that rely heavily on oddball pairings of the cast. Certain interactions contribute to the main storyline (such as a trip to the dentist with Bill Murray’s Richard Campbell and Bob Baladan’s Preston Savitz’s) but most have no clear purpose and actually convolute the over-stuffed narrative (e.g., an earlier scene where the same pair smoke cigarettes with a mislaid Nazi soldier). It’s as if Clooney, who penned the screenplay with Grant Heslov (The Ides of March), ignored one of writing’s primary rules: “kill your darlings.” As a result, The Monuments Men includes several indulgent scenes that have absolutely no bearing on the larger plot. Given the gut wrenching setting, these one-off character moments only distract from the film’s primary focus and undermine much of the intended emotional punch.

Performances are adequate across the board – with fun but not particularly memorable turns from every single member of the cast. While Clooney and Matt Damon riff on their Ocean’s Eleven rapport, Murray and Baladan steal several scenes with a lively rivalry that becomes increasingly endearing throughout the film – with one especially sweet gesture providing much-needed catharsis. Similarly, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are teamed-up for much of the runtime, as Walter Garfield and frenchman Jean Claude Clermont, respectively. Like Murray and Baladan, Goodman and Dujardin are captivating but their relationship isn’t as carefully defined – and neither character is elevated beyond agreeable one-note caricatures.

Cate Blanchett The Monuments Men Movie The Monuments Men Review

Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone in ‘The Monuments Men’

Sadly, thanks to all the extraneous story tangents, Cate Blanchett’s art dealer-turned-spy, Claire Simone, is entirely wasted in the film – reduced to little more than an obstacle for Damon’s James Granger to overcome. From the beginning, the character is easily one of the more interesting additions, with a rich backstory and intriguing ties to France’s underground Nazi resistance. Nevertheless, Clooney minimizes Simone’s role to little more than a suspicious and downright sarcastic nuisance – before completely sending her off the rails in a bizarre and unearned tell-all dinner (with an entirely unneeded side of flirtation).

In the end, The Monuments Men is an agreeable but unremarkable film. There’s nothing memorable about the cinematography, performances, or the final on screen narrative to make it a must-see for anyone who wasn’t initially taken by the core premise. The notable cast delivers fun tongue-in-cheek whimsy, even when the larger narrative begins to fade into the background, but is given little room to develop their respective characters or offer unique insight into a time period that has been examined on film from superior angles before. Fans of historical dramas will likely find enough reason to enjoy The Monuments Men but the movie wastes a powerful source material story – one that could have added a unique perspective on overly-familiar tales of Hitler and World War II.

If you’re still on the fence about Monuments Men, check out the trailer below:

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Monuments Men runs 118 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking. Now playing in theaters.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

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12 Comments

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  1. Sounds like it would have made a good TV miniseries……. A BBC produced show would be even better.

    • That’s a good point.

    • I would have loved to have seen a good TV miniseries. That’s actually part of the problem with the film, it’s so condensed to fit into a 2 hour movie that a lot of great stories are underdeveloped (or were probably cut out altogether).

  2. I saw the trailer yesterday and it looked like a copy of Inglourious Basterds.

  3. Whaaaaaa?
    Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo

  4. This movie, while having an elite cast, looks so boring and lame.

  5. hahshs rated PG-13 for (among other things) “historical smoking”

    Is that more or less severe than modern smoking? ;)

  6. So, did the movie go out of its way to make military men (other than the main cast who are “NOT soldiers” as so adamantly proclaimed in the tv ads) look like a bunch of adrenaline junky a-holes or what? I figure with someone like George Clooney at the helm, that would be one of the movie’s objectives…

  7. So I saw this last night, It was interesting and OK, gives another side to WWII drama, but it is very slow , John Goodman seems a little awkward or out of place at times. I think Matt Damon and the guy who played “Stahl” did the best acting jobs in my opinion. It’s a good movie if you have nothing to do and aren’t feeling typical Movie theater loud movies.

  8. I just saw the film this afternoon, and despite the fact that yes, it was rather disjointed, I still enjoyed it immensely. I’ve always enjoyed learning about parts of history that I had not yet studied, and I bought the book that the film takes its content from, in order to learn about this side of WWII, that while it may not seem as important to people in lieu of taking back Europe from the Nazi’s, still matters. Saving Europe and the world wouldn’t have mattered as much, if the culture of Europe was lost. Art is often seen by many as just a part of life, something to look at, something to try as a hobby or a career before moving on to something else (I’m not speaking out of turn, I’ve heard many people comment on art in this way). But without art, without paintings and sculptures and buildings, everything that shows who we are as a people, what we are, how we define ourselves, if that is all gone, beating the Nazi’s would have been a hollow victory. I recommend to everyone that you see this movie, and read the book, to understand what a small group of men and women were up against in order to protect, preserve, and ensure for all future generations.

  9. “The result is an entertaining but extremely uneven film that should satisfy historical drama fans but falls very short of realizing the full potential of its gripping premise.”

    I think that I have to agree.

    I liked the movie and the story, but, I feel like I should buy the book to understand what really happened.

    Also, I agree with the comments that it would be better as a TV series. Maybe like Downton Abbey.

    I enjoyed the movie, and I really don’t have any big problems with it, but I felt like I just had a veggie burger & a diet coke, when I could have indulged in an all-you-can-eat buffet.

  10. I came into this movie with high expectations. I enjoyed the “Ides of March” and really like the ensemble in this movie. However, it was just a disjointed mess. It seemed like it should have been double the runtime with the number of story threads presented. Many character arcs felt incomplete and the pacing was definitely off. Not only that, but some sequences seemed unnecessary to the overall storyline. Needless to say, I was disappointed in this film.