The Monuments Men Isn’t Exactly “Monumental”

Well, this is a sad day for me. I had high hopes for this movie. I even put it on my most anticipated list for this year. And I walked out of the theater…disappointed. I should’ve guessed as much when The Monuments Men was moved to February, away from its original December release, which would’ve made it Oscar-bait. Why else would Clooney have pushed his pet project back, unless he knew it wasn’t as good as the other awards nominees? But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel, The Monuments Men follows Frank Stokes (George Clooney) as he gathers a team of specialists during World War II to rescue history’s greatest art, which has been stolen by the Nazis from all over Europe. His team includes art restorer at the Met, James Granger (Matt Damon); sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman); theatre director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban); architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray); British army contact Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville); and fine arts director Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). With some help from a curator at Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), Stokes and his team make their mark on history.

Pandering, half-hearted, and confused. These are all words that I would use to describe The Monuments Men (and probably will several times before the end of this review because my brain is stuck on them). Although The Monuments Men is well-acted—and no one would ever argue otherwise with such a cast—the fact is that this just isn’t the great movie it promised us it would be. This movie serves as no more than a good example of what happens when a director (in this case, George Clooney) tries to rely on a great true story, a talented cast, and a dedicated score composer to do the work.

The biggest problem with this movie is that it can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it funny and cool, or dramatic and proud? It tries to be all of them at once, which, unfortunately, makes everything fall flat. For example, the jokes about Murray’s Campbell and Balaban’s Savitz being the opposites paired together don’t exactly land when two seconds later we’re shown a moment with a young soldier dying in a military medical tent while a recording of Campbell’s family singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays in the background.

It should’ve been obvious that The Monuments Men had tone issues from the differences between the first and second trailers. The first trailer set up a witty, heist-like film that had the sexiness of Ocean’s Eleven (I apologize in advance for using this movie as a frequent point of reference starting now). The second trailer, however, tried to pretend it would leave as much of an impact as, say, Flags of Our Fathers.

Had Clooney decided to take a more definitive direction with this movie, it might’ve been more successful. Now, normally, I’m not one for movies being so black-and-white. I appreciate a good dramedy, particularly when done well. But I don’t think The Monuments Men had that opportunity because of its source material. It either needed to be a fast-paced, quick-talking film or a serious drama. Let me explain…

Since a lot of the soldiers fighting in WWII thought the Monuments Men operation was kind of a joke, why not embrace the joke? Instead of going for pleas to love and protect art, they could’ve gone the Ocean’s Eleven (I told you) route with it. After all, they already had the “specialists” plot point (like Ocean’s). Why not give us more insight into each specialist and what they were bringing to the table, and then have them each get scenes where they used their skill set to get the job done. And for god’s sake, the comedy was practically delivered on a silver platter. A bunch of old, art historians trying to go through basic training? The jokes write themselves! But we didn’t even get to see them go through basic (which was a slapstick waste, in my opinion) because we were rushed off to the front lines.

Would it have been historically inaccurate to make it more casual and heist-like? Definitely. But since when has any filmmaker cared about not bastardizing history? (See: None of them). Since Clooney did care about getting the story correct (to a point), he should’ve gone the dramatic route (which is my preferred route for this particular story).

With a drama, The Monuments Men could’ve honed in on the true issue at hand, which wasn’t the stolen art. You see, Clooney’s Stokes made all of these grandiose speeches about how art is the very foundation of civilization (In fact, he makes about three of these speeches). But those speeches miss the point. Nobody cared that the Nazis were taking the art simply because it was art. They cared because a Totalitarian government would then control the entire world’s history.

I want you to think about this, and tell me this story doesn’t deserve gravitas. If Hitler had obtained all of the world’s art, then he would’ve possessed knowledge, too (Think Orwell’s 1984 and the “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”). Knowledge of who created the art, when it had been created, where it had been housed, what it’s historical significance was, and so on and so forth. It shouldn’t have been the fear of losing the art, per se, but rather that Hitler was in complete control of future knowledge. For all we know, had he survived, he could’ve claimed that he and his Aryan race had created the art, and the generations in years to come would’ve believed it as truth. That, my friends, is the truly frightening message that this movie just seemed to glaze right over in favor of “Hitler’s making a museum!”

Had the movie shown us the seriousness of this situation, I think the movie’s dramatic moments (like losing two members of the Monuments Men team to tragic deaths that ultimately didn’t seem nearly as tragic as they should have) would’ve been much more poignant. But instead, we got a half-hearted attempt at making the case for history without, you know, actually making the case for history.

Sigh. Okay, well, I guess I can leave you with at least one non-disappointed note. Matt Damon’s terrible French is probably the funniest running joke in this film. There. That’s all you get.

Overall, The Monuments Men had the potential to be a great film about real men who impressively rescued artwork from the Nazis during WWII. But it couldn’t find its tone, which trickled down all the way to its message, muddying the entire movie. This half-comedy, half-drama attempted to come across as a lighthearted yet serious discussion of history and the men who fought (and died) for it, but all it did was pander to the same emotions it forced out of its actors.

The Monuments Men: C+

For my radio review of The Monuments Men on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 24:10 mark).

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