Director: George Clooney
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Dimitri Leonidas and Cate Blanchett
Plot: As the Second World War draws to a close, Hitler decides to destroy all of the art he has stolen, during his invasion. Only the Monuments Men can stop him.
The Monuments Men is quite a frustrating movie. As George Clooney tells us at the end of the film, this is a story that deserves to be told. These seven men risked their lives, in order to save the art and legacy of several European countries. While every other soldier in the military turned their noses up at the idea of putting value in a Picasso painting over a human life, Clooney shows us that art is worth fighting for. Even if you side with the men who weren’t prepared to die for a piece of foreign art, you have to respect those men that did. They were totally unprepared for the brutal nature of war, armed with little more than their passion, yet they stood up to the challenge and saw it out to the bitter end. Yes, I am glad that I took the time to sit down and watch this piece of cinema, because I felt that it taught me a part of history that I feel I needed to know about. However, the irritating part of this film is that Monuments Men isn’t actually all that good. I would hardly call it an awful experience, but it lacks a strong climax and developed characters, making it a rather average movie.
I think the main problem here is George Clooney. As an actor, he is terrific, but his directional talents are just not good enough for this kind of material. I understand that Clooney is passionate about the story and wanted to see this movie made, but I feel that his vision would have been better realised, if he got a budget together and handed the project over to a full-time director. Clooney would still have control over the movie, as it is his idea, but the movie would have an additional spark that an outside perspective could bring. Take the opening exposition. It just doesn’t really convey the stakes well enough. It isn’t until the second act of the film that I ever truly appreciated how important art was to the story; as the movie opens, the Monuments Men might as well have been dubbed the McGuffin Men. Clooney does his best inspirational speech and we get brooding shots of insidious looking Nazis, but at this point in the movie, we don’t emphasise with the actual mission. The explanation of how important art is gets paired with the introduction of the characters, who Clooney wants us to regard in a light-hearted tone. You cannot have it both ways. The opening scenes of the movie show Clooney stressing how important their objective is, with Bill Murray and Bob Balaban bickering in the background. That is two different tones being played over one another and both the jokes and the drama miss the mark, because of it.
Also, the characters aren’t really ‘characters’ in their own right. The actors are all on great form, but in many ways, they are playing little more than themselves. Jean Dujardin plays the charming Frenchman, but needs to use the typical Dujardin spark to get him off the ground. Matt Damon and George Clooney feel more like Matt Damon and George Clooney, rather than their respective characters. Maybe this is a good thing. It does have a certain ‘does what it says on the tin’ angle; we have showed up for Bill Murray, so we get Bill Murray. It just means that, once again, it isn’t until the middle act that we get any proper feelings for anyone. In fact, the only person who seemed to be actually portraying a character was Cate Blanchett, who just seems in a different league than anyone else in the film. Her character is a complex creature, built up mistrusting everyone around her and sure that the concept of the Monuments Men is surely too good to be true. Even when Clooney throws in a vague notion of a blossoming romance for her character, Blanchett makes it work, using the clichéd story to make her character even more interesting.
The film does get better. An emotional scene where Bill Murray gets a package from home, juxtaposed with Clooney failing to save a dying soldier they found on the road, actually hits the spot, suggesting that deep down Clooney knows what he is doing as a director. As the art starts getting destroyed by the Germans and we are head-first into the adventure, we begin to get more invested in what we are watching. However, maybe by that point, it is too late. There isn’t a real climax to the story, which admittedly sometimes happens when you adapt a true story for the cinema. Monuments Men also struggles with a flaw that I personally feel most World War movies have: there is never a villain. Sure, we get the Nazis and there a few shots of Hitler, lurking in the shadows, as if he is the demon in a horror movie, but they are always kept as distant figures. They are there, threatening everyone, but they never really come into play. The addition of some rogue Russians suggests a better villain, but that strand of story never gets anywhere. Maybe the lack of an explosive finale feels more true to the real events, but one must beg the question if Monuments Men is worth the price of a cinema ticket.
Final Verdict: Monuments Men is a worthy adaption of an important part of our history, but without much of a spark, it fails to summon up the necessary excitement in the audience.