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