The Monuments Men
Is the World War Two well getting close to drained when it comes to modern media? Movies, TV, and video games all saw resurgence in the use of the conflict as a basis for entertainment after the immense success of Saving Private Ryan, but in more recent years that trend seems to have died down. It’s hard to find good ideas for film from that era that are either viable as entertainment or that have not been done before. There are no more big budget epics for the big screen, no more HBO miniseries, even Call Of Duty has moved on.
Enter George Clooney. Directing, writing and producing, he’s delved deep into the intricacies of the Allied advance against Nazism and, after finding the work of author/documentarian Robert M. Edsel, has come up with what might be one of the last unique angles on the conflicts. But does that make for a good film?
In 1943 Frank Stokes (George Clooney), a museum director, oversees the creation of a special military unit designed to find and save unique pieces of art from destruction in the war – or from Nazi theft. Americans (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban), French (Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett) and British (Hugh Bonneville) all join the cause and are soon moving with the Allied advance towards and into Germany. These “Monuments Men” risk life and limb to protect the treasures of western civilisation from its greatest conflagration.
What follows is a brief, non-spoiler, review before I get more in-depth, a transition that will be clearly marked.
I like a good World War Two movie as much as the next guy, but I sort of require them to not be as dull as dishwater. Which is exactly what The Monuments Men is. This is a pedestrian, slow-moving, overly-long tale that is barely worth telling in the grander scheme of things, and a lot of that comes back to the films relationship with historical accuracy.
I happen to have read Edsel’s book, and it’s as dull as this adaptation, an aggrandising account of a very minor part of the larger war effort. This film attempts similar aggrandisement, but in trying to stick to the reality of what happened as much as possible, betrays the boredom inherent in the tale. Not even the brief forays away from the historical record, mostly trying to make certain character deaths more meaningful than they were in reality, can’t save it. This is a film where nothing happens for over an hour, save for Matt Damon’s awkward flirtations with Cate Blanchett, and the rest of the cast’s episodic travails around war-torn Europe, connected only through their lack of interesting events.
Clooney would have been better served, if he wanted to make something entertaining, in cutting down on the amount of characters and half-done subplots, and instead focusing on some infiltration of Nazi castles and art repositories, an Oceans 11 for the 1940’s. Accurate? No. Worth making? Far more than this, a film that does a discredit to the people it is trying to honour by placing fictionalised versions of them in a frequently maudlin and ultimately tawdry jaunt through the motions. It lacks a clear antagonist, any sense of real danger or moments to get your heart racing. Leading up to an incredibly weak finale, The Monuments Men never exhibits any of the necessary energy or adventurous streak that such a film needs.
It also hurts that the cast is so limp. Clooney is invested for sure, easily the best of the lot. But the rest, from Damon to Blanchett, are phoning it in to a remarkable extent, those named two particularly in some truly dreadful quasi-romantic moments. Bill Murray channels Ghostbusters 2 while Bonneville’s delivery of some “heartfelt” monologues are as insipid and lifeless as they come.
The film is at least interesting visually, the production team calling on every facet of that post-Saving Private Ryan work in recreating the frequently ghastly visages of Nazi-Occupied and subsequently devastated Europe. There are some great locales here, from castles to mines, and Clooney is a proven director who knows some great ways to frame a shot. Too bad the wordplay used in them is so corny and weak, Clooney falling back on tired patriotic speechmaking and sycophantic “brothers in arms” stereotypes over and over, that lack the right context to be truly effective in the way that they are in, say, Band Of Brothers. The score, from Alexandre Desplat, is as poor and unimaginative as the rest of the production.
The Monuments Men is obsessed with answering a question of “Was it worth it?” in regards men risking their lives for artwork. The film, at the very least, makes the point well that the safeguarding of national treasures and artwork is vital for the preservation of a peoples or nations legacy. But if you ask me if this film was worth making, I would have to say no. It’s a poor effort at making an imaginative war story, whose rigid clinging to the humdrum reality keeps it from being anything special. Not recommended.
More in-depth stuff, with spoilers, from this point out.
Films like this have a problem with historical accuracy. Many people, filmmakers, watchers, reviewers, are practically married to that concept, that in a film based on an historical event, accuracy is everything: deviations are meant to be ridiculed and pointed at as a bad thing.
This is a bad thing when it comes to entertainment in my opinion, which is what film is supposed to be about. When you become too rigidly attached to the historical record that you can’t bear to change things to make a better story, film suffers. You might feel as if you are doing a disservice to the people you are representing from history, or the things that they did, but my advice on that score is simple: go make a documentary and sell that. Otherwise, be prepared to make some changes. Or, you can just use the basic historical events as a basis for a different story.
The Monuments Men, much like Zero Dark Thirty last year, is an example of historical accuracy trumping what could have been a good story. Director/writer/producer/lead George Clooney could have made something very special here, but decided to adhere so strongly to the historical reality that what he has finally come with is more entropy than entertaining.
I happen to have read the book that The Monuments Men is based on, and the film does follow it pretty closely. Which is a problem, because Edsel’s book is a very poor read, a supremely dull offering, one of that brand of “history” books where the author , writing in the present tense, feels the need to imagine what his subjects were thinking at any given time, fiction dressed up as fact. It aggrandises a very minor part of the Allied war effort into something monumental (if you’ll pardon the use of that word) perhaps because the author simply couldn’t find another untold story from that era. The Monuments Men follows the book so precisely that it inherits all of its problems, which I will elaborate on now, and then goes further and invents some new ones.
The main overusing problem, of both book and film, is that the entire experience is as dull as dishwater. We’re presented with a multitude of nothing characters you come to neither care about or sympathise with in any real fashion. Their adventure is boring and more than a little tired. They spend the better part of two hours chasing shadows, and then stumble upon their quarry all at once and without any undue problems like Germans shooting at them (you know, like the rest of the war: it’s difficult to generate too much enthusiasm for the story Clooney wants to tell when such momentous events are happening elsewhere at the same time).
The pacing, the episodic nature of the entire thing, does no favours to The Monuments Men. We switch so fast between duets that we never have time to appreciate any of the characters to the right degree, or to get invested in whatever they’re doing. Which is all basically the same thing anyway, tracking down stolen artwork and mostly failing miserably.
The characters thing is so important. On the face of it Clooney seemed to be putting together something akin to Oceans 11 in World War Two. Now that would have been interesting, with a multi-national team of Allied soldiers trying to, say, break into some fortified German castle to still back some art. But no. Instead we get a group of middle aged men bordering on the stereotypical at points – stiff upper lip Brit, whimsical Free French – who are just nothing characters, placeholders for whatever “exciting” incident Clooney wants to bring up. There are far too many of them for The Monuments Men’s running time. Where Oceans 11 uses its large cast mostly as scenery setting and the odd quip, The Monuments Men tries to give them all an equal share of the limelight, and everyone ends up suffering because of it. The characters of John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray and Balaban especially, receive next to no characterisation to make them really stand out, and go through, for the most part, no events of importance.
The Monuments Men falls into a well worn trap of over-sentimentalised plot and dialogue, the running time replete with patriotic speeches and calls to arms from Stokes, perhaps desperate to distract from what we are actually seeing by throwing in as many of his own monologues and pontifications as possible. When actual characterisation does come into play for some, it’s usually the atypical war stuff – misses the family back home, if I don’t make it tell my wife I love her, it was an honour serving with you, freedom, truth, justice, the American way etc, etc. It’s hard to make that stuff work onscreen, and I struggle to elaborate on how exactly to. Something like Band Of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan did it very well, where The Monuments Men absolutely does not. Maybe it’s just that it never seemed genuine in The Monuments Men, and was overdone also. You compare Matt Damon’s basic utterance that he is proud to have served with his fellow Monuments Men as he prepares to step off a landmine – a weirdly elongated scene by the way – with the much more effective line by the same actor in Saving Private Ryan: “Tell her (his mother) that when you found me, I was here, and I was with the only brothers that I have left.” The latter is simple, memorable and effective. The former is yawn-inducing.
Other parts of the plot similarly fall down. The most important is the quasi-romance angle between the Damon and Blanchett characters. The book had the same awful problem, of trying to infer a romantic relationship where none occurred, and Clooney just runs with that. Blanchett’s character is interesting enough, even if she never seems to actually do much, but was wasted in a series of stilted, awkward interactions with Damon’s lieutenant, culminating in some of the most uncomfortable flirting possible in their final scenes together. Film need romance, or so the common thread goes (they really don’t. Not always) and this was The Monuments Men’s pathetic attempt at one. As per my previous thoughts on historical accuracy, this is one of those things that you either go all out on, or ignore entirely.
Perhaps worse is the attempted drama that Clooney tries to come up with. Unfortunately, when he actually does try to deviate from the historical record, things also go badly. Two of the MFAA unit did die in the course of World War Two, but it was not in such dramatic circumstances as this. Hugh Bonneville’s character dies in the direct act of trying to save Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child from Nazi looters – the character he’s based on was killed by artillery. Worse, Clooney tries to spin it as some sort of redemption for that characters apparent alcoholism, the sort of boilerplate background that is no way makes the character actually interesting. Over and again, we’re told about this character’s problems, but we never simply get shown. Until he’s dead, and we’re apparently supposed to think him a hero.
The other death is a bit more accurate, an American soldier, Captain Walter Huchthausen, killed by small arms fire in April 1945. For some reason he had to be French in The Monuments Men, but the problems with this replication is that the two characters involved are as empty as you can get – Dujardin’s French Monuments Man gets a few quips and a really forced encounter with a Hitler Youth kid before getting offed. John Goodman cries over his body, and literally offers nothing for the rest of the film. Clooney attempts to spin these deaths into being more meaningful than they are because it imbues the MFAA’s purpose with a cost, but I’m not buying that. When you kill of a cardboard cut-out, I’m not going to weep too much.
What other problems are there? The film lacks a really stand-out antagonist. There’s the German director of the Paris museums that gets his comeuppance around the half way point in one of the films better scenes (the Heil Hitler moment was genuinely clever). There’s a bland German Colonel who goes around burning art and gets a last minute verbal showdown with George Clooney, but he was as empty a character as much of the Monuments Men he was inadvertently placed against. Nobody else really qualifies. This gives the film a really drab directionless quality, because the Monuments Men don’t have a bad guy to face, unless it’s the entire Nazi war machine in general. Worse, right at the death the film decides to make the advancing Soviet Union, and an even more anonymous officer, the bad guys, and they get the same leitmotifs as the Nazis.
The pacing and structure are all wrong, everything has a really pedestrian and unexciting feel to it. There’s no urgency in what is being presented, everything seems so flat. The opening introductions, because of the huge amount of characters, takes far too long. Splitting the group up into smaller groups of two turns the film into an episodic mess where everyone is doing something else but nothing really interesting is happening anywhere. The Monuments Men really is more a series of nunremarkable incidents than a coherent story. The finale is too long and a bit of a damp squib, as the team “race against time” rather than an actual opponent, to steal back some lost treasures (while leaving a whole lot else behind it is inferred).
I’ve been resoundingly negative so far. So what does The Monuments Men actually get right? Well, I found the general premise of The Monuments Men interesting, there’s something very endearing about people who risk their lives for artwork, but the execution was just all wrong. There are a few decent individual scenes, like the aforementioned “Heil Hitler” showdown with Stahl, or a Christmas time record playing scene. But ultimately these moments are few and far between.
In terms of female characters, there’s only one really. Blanchett’s Simone is, as previously stated, quite interesting as a character initially, but suffers from having next to nothing to actual do in the running time. She spends her time allowing Matt Damon’s character to chase after her and the information she is holding, eventually gives it to him, makes an awkward pass at him, and that’s about it really. There’s glimpses of a very strong woman behind all of that – the way she faces down Stahl at the train station was pretty awesome really – but she just never really gets a chance to show it: it’s like all of her glorious moments of resistance and espionage happened before the events the film is depicting, and they don’t have time to really get into it too much.
In the end, The Monuments Men’s plot is weighted down by its multitude of flaws. It’s boring, it has too many characters, not enough characterisation and a host of other problems. There is a kernel of something really special in there, it just was buried underneath so much unnecessary fluff, nostalgia and all too casual American propaganda caricatures.
In acting terms, only George Clooney is really trying to his utmost. From the immense workload he took on as part of this project, it’s obvious that he was the most committed, and that shows in his performance. It’s his usual thing of course, that soft-spoken, handsome American drawl, one exuding confidence, righteousness and charm. It’s good that Clooney is so good at what he does, or else The Monuments Men would be rapidly approaching write off territory.
Because the rest of the cast, starved for the spotlight and with very little to add to proceedings when they do have it, are uniformly dull. Matt Damon’s done his service in World War Two and did far better than this, little more than a man in a uniform. Cate Blanchett, as stated, trundles through some of the terrible material she has to work with, and at no point could I say that the two had any real kind of spark or connection to rouse my interest.
Oh, and the rest. Bill Murray, with echoes of Ghostbusters 2, appears as if he wishes he were anywhere else. Bonneville is a real one trick pony I think, his character being just a hairs breath away from being Lord Grantham. Goodman, Dujardin, Balaban, none of them are really that fascinating and none of them do anything of note. There are Oscar winners in this group remember, they should be doing better than this.
The remaining cast have it even worse of course, only Justus Von Dohnanyi standing out. I remember him being quite good as General Burgdohf in Der Untergang and he’s back in the Nazi uniform here. There was a chance he could have been a decent villain, but it went a begging.
Visually the film is just fine. This is at the end of the line when it comes to the modern World War Two epics and a lot of work has been done by other filmmakers beforehand that Clooney and company can draw on. The right way to frame a beach landing (not under fire this time), the right way to encapsulate the strewn rubble of a devastated town, the contrast between the up market respectable surrounds of Paris and the grisly depictions of the Holocaust in action elsewhere. I wouldn’t say that Clooney had done anything really innovative in his direction, but he has stood on the shoulders of giants. There are no combat sequences to shoot here, bar one or two incidences, and Clooney is better served when he focuses on the interior shots, that take in as much detail of the surrounds as possible in order to give things that retro feel – the lighting is especially well mastered in scenes such as that with the phonograph or in anything where the camera is trying to illustrate the beauty of the artwork the main characters are trying to save – or when it is heartlessly destroyed by the villainous Nazis.
But there are some odd moments as well. Clooney interrupts his narrative so he can shoot Matt Damon flying above Paris for some reason and there are a few moments when the camera is lingering on the artwork – like the sculptures in the castle – for a bit too long.
Production wise, it’s a fine example of recreating the period. The informs, the period clothing, the weapons, the vehicles and the feel of the 1940s is recreated very well, again thanks largely to the amount of work that has been done on this genre in the last 20 or so years.
The script is poor. I’ve mentioned some of the flaws already – the never ending speeches regarding worth, the cliché war wordplay, the terrible “romantic” dialogue – and the whole thing is just generally sub-par. No memorable lines here, no moments of dialogue to really stand out, with a few exceptions.
One of those is the discussion between Clooney and the German Colonel near the conclusion. The Monuments Men makes a continuous point about how the Nazi plan for Europe involves not just the destruction of people, but their legacy, some of its better point making. This final conversation, while suffering due to the lack of characterisation given to the antagonist, is actually pretty good, as Clooney outlines how the final defeat and humiliation for the Third Reich will be how its henchmen will be punished and then forgotten. Another is the aforementioned “Heil Hitler” moment, a clever way for the Monuments Men in question to uncover the secret Nazi on their midst – by revealing his still indoctrinated children.
Ah, but those moments are few and far between. Hugh Bonneville’s final letter, Clooney’s interminable speeches, any words given to Cate Blanchett, the list goes on and on, examples of poor script work and uninspired dialogue. The limp delivery is also an issue of course, but there is only so much you can blame the actors for. In line with the poor way that these characters are elaborated upon, the words they are given to say are, for the most part, unexceptional and not fit for purpose when it comes to giving characters distinct voices.
Alexandre Desplat seems as uninterested in his score as much of the cast were in their performances. Bering little more than a pale imitation of the war scores that have been created in the past, Desplat can’t even drag his enthusiasm up to make separate themes for the Germans and the Soviets. Drum, low horns, revile leitmotifs – The Monuments Men has all of the genres staples. It is, like so much of the rest of The Monuments Men, dull.
There are a few themes in The Monuments Men worth discussing. The first is resistance. Everything involving the Blanchett character is defined by this, representing a nation, France, that is being held down by Germany, They, in the form of Simone, have to find ways to fight back. This can be in petty ways (spitting in his champagne glass) pro-active ways (keeping track of the stolen artwork) or symbolic (standing still as the retreating Germans shoot at you). This kind of resistance is all that people like Simone have, lacking the means to fight back in a more tangible and traditional manner, But it is important, for the self-respect of the person and of the nation, especially when she is in a position to have been viewed as one of the hated collaborators.
Resistance is vital because of another key theme, that of preservation. The Nazi’s want to wipe out the inferior, not just in body but in history and legacy. In The Monuments Men, this impulse takes the form of art theft and destruction, paving the way for a new 1000 year Reich, but the film also covers the more horrific aspect of the German purges, the gold teeth in barrels, the deserted homes of Jewish art collectors, the young German-American soldier who never got to see a self-portrait of Rembrandt because of his religion and race.
Preserving these things – the Rembrandt, the Jewish community, whatever – is the challenge to Nazism that the culture battle of World War Two fought. It is most important to save a people, since history has shown that a survived people can maintain their traditions and thrive later, not least the Jewish race. But is it also important to try and save their works, the impact that they have had on the planet, so that more than just their mere existence can be preserved. The Allies are about saving civilisation, when the Nazi’s are about tearing it down and starting over.
Lastly, and most importantly, there is a theme of asking “Was it worth it?” a question that book ends the sections of the film featuring the titular Monuments Men. Stokes and his company seem to think it was very much worth it, exemplified by the pleasure and wonder the works of art they saved still have on people viewing them decades later. This was their portion of the fight against the evil that was Nazism, what they could offer for the cause, so yes, in line with all of the above regards resistance and preservation, it was worth it. Two men, in the film and in reality, died trying to achieve that purpose. Their deaths are hard to take, but were given gladly in pursuit of this higher cause. There is a nobility in that that some might not understand, believing mere works of art not worthy of spilled blood. But this was their cause, their part in the struggle. Was it worth it? In the end, it is the opinion of the men and women involved that matters most. To them, yes it was.
The Monuments Men is a disappointing film. Its pace is sluggish, its story is better suited to the documentary format, it has too many characters with not enough characterisation. Its script is poor, the score more so. The visuals are alright and there are a few half-decent moments, but they can’t make up for an unambitious sprawl of a movie, that badly needed a more specific focus and traditional journey for its characters to go on.
A good film could have been made here, far better than the one that was presented. If the production team had been willing to greater alter things from the historical record in the pursuit of decent entertainment, we could have been treated to something very special. But, instead, enthralled to that mistress that scoffs at artistic license as the production team were, we must settle for this failure. And that is what it is.
(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox).