These days accidentally deleting a single song from your iTunes library might feel like losing a major part of yourself. Music and other forms of art helps create our identity, both as individuals and as a culture. As frustrating as that might be, at least those songs are not gone forever. But what if they were? Not just to you, but to everyone? Wouldn’t the world be a lesser place without those works of creativity? The Monuments Men explores that idea with a “based on a true story” tale about the attempt to save Europe’s great works of art from the Nazis.
In 1943, Professor Frank Stokes (George Clooney, who also directs and co-wrote the script) speaks to President Roosevelt with concern about Europe’s major works of art being stolen and, in some cases, destroyed during World War II. Roosevelt gives Stokes the authority to create a unit of learned art scholars, including Met curator James Granger (Matt Damon), nicknamed the Monuments Men to go into war zones to ensure the protection of cultural artifacts as well as locate the ones stolen by Nazis from their occupied territories. After landing in Normandy shortly after D-Day, The Monuments Men meet considerable resistance from Allied officers while trying to fulfill their task, and with understandable reason — these officers are commanding thousands of troops in delicate operations and can’t always factor in making sure a painting or sculpture remains unscathed. Yet they are racing against the clock, because Hitler has given orders to destroy the stolen artwork rather than to allow it fall into Allied hands.
The movie pares the actual three-dozen Monuments Men to seven fictional characters, who in addition to Clooney and Damon are portrayed by likable actors Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban. Yet despite having those actors behind them, the problem is that none of the principal characters have depth to their personalities except for caring deeply about art. The farthest the characters get is the constant comedic bickering between Murray’s character and Balaban’s character, but it’s not really established why they hassle each other except for the fact that the typical Bill Murray character usually gets on the nerves of characters that a Bob Balaban type would play. There’s also a humorous running joke of Damon’s Granger being a poor French speaker that adds additional laughs, yet the movie pretty much runs that joke into the ground.
Another example of an attempt and making these characters interesting is a poignant “missing home” scene that thankfully focuses on Murray’s character (of the principals, he’s the one that can pull off that expression most). Yet it’s sort of just duct-taped into the movie seemingly because most modern war films need a token scene of that type. Murray’s character missing his family is neither addressed previously nor mentioned again. It’s a wonderfully acted scene by Murray… but why is it here? It has nothing to do with the plot.
The movie also stars Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone, a French museum curator who is collaborating with the Nazis, but only to ensure the artwork remains protected. When the Nazis are run out of Paris, she refuses to help Granger because she figures he and his preservationist friends are only out to claim the stolen artwork for their own museums. This is pretty silly logic on her part, but it’s an attempt to add tension and involve a significant female character in a movie otherwise filled with men. Of course, Simone isn’t allowed to complete her story arc in the movie without trying to sex up one of the Monuments Men, which pretty much deflates the whole strong, independent woman thing she had going for her throughout the film. Stealing art? She hates you. Saving art? She’ll sleep with you. Tell her you once saved a few works of Monet and she’ll do anything you want, apparently.
In fact, the major issue with The Monuments Men is it is a heist film without much tension because it takes place when the Germans were already badly losing the war. The movie attempts to build the Soviets as a second threat (unlike the Monuments Men, the Soviets wanted to bring all found art back to Mother Russia as trophies). Clooney tries to build tension in what is apparently the climax, but the actual danger is never really defined. This isn’t exactly Indiana Jones competing with the Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, as much as it wants to be.
There were a few things I liked about the film despite it’s pretty dull storyline. Clooney creates great atmosphere and the film’s wardrobe and scenery are top notch. I was especially impressed by the score by Alexandre Desplat, which is reminiscent of the scores of great World War II films. Desplat has been a relatively unsung hero when it comes to composing film music — he’s been nominated for six Oscars and has yet to win one, and while I don’t think his score for this film will change that I believe he’ll get recognized in due time.
During the credits photos of the actual recovery efforts are shown, which reveals the ultimate problem with The Monuments Men: this fascinating story would have made a far more interesting documentary. Which is probably why I was so disappointed with The Monuments Men — I truly believe this is a story worth telling, because the preservation of art is the preservation of culture and heritage. But a lot of that is lost in an attempt to shoehorn this story into a narrative thriller — which it isn’t.
RATING: An interesting story presented by great actors in a very dull way (5.5/10).