March Issue 2014
Movie Review: The Monuments Men
George Clooney brings out the worst in film journalists. One just has to watch the Berlin Film Festival press conference of his latest film, The Monuments Men, where the movie played out-of-competition. Almost all questions, ranging from the ill-advised to the obnoxious, were directed at “Gorgeous George,” while veterans like Bill Murray and John Goodman just sat and watched, occasionally chipping in with statements for comic effect.
On paper, The Monuments Men, Clooney’s fifth directorial venture, sounds like the sort of film Hollywood has to make at all costs: it features Nazis, American bravura, the meaning of art — in short, it’s a full-fledged caper, based on the true story and book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel. In practice, however, the picture never gets going, resulting in disappointment.
The Monuments Men portrays the ‘Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program,’ whereby a team of Allies tries to find and save pieces of art during the Second World War, as Adolf Hitler has decreed that they be destroyed. In true Danny Ocean fashion, conservation specialist Frank Stokes (Clooney) assembles a task force of museum curators, sculptors and art connoisseurs, who go deep behind enemy lines and episodically retrieve works of importance.
The Monuments Men is hung over with the sentiment that America will save everyone and everything, which is a bit uncalled for, given the subject matter (and also not entirely factual, since in the film too, two Monuments Men — one French and one English — make greater, more personal sacrifices).
In general, the tone of the film is inapt, with the Ocean’s Eleven-vibe unsuitable for this war milieu, or perhaps any war film in general. In this lies The Monuments Men’s greatest weakness — it tries to be a fun, joyful romp (the entire cast certainly look like they had a lot of fun making it), but this only makes the entire film appear unbalanced. Clooney, who has adapted the screenplay with regular writing partner Grant Heslov, tries to grapple for a midway between comedy and drama, and ends up not quite justifying either genre with his uninspired and, frankly, dull treatment of the material.
There’s hardly any fun to be had with The Monuments Men, save in a couple of scenes between Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, or in one sequence, in which John Goodman and Jean Dujardin come under attack from an unidentifiable shooter. Incidentally, the film has a female character too: Cate Blanchett, who has been nominated for an Oscar for her terrific performance in Blue Jasmine, follows that up with this surprisingly insignificant role in an insignificant film. Probably the prospect of working with this exceptional band of actors convinced her to accept the role.
There is certainly something interesting to be said about the relevancy of the narrative; even to this day, stolen art from that period is being recovered. In November last year, about 1500 artworks originally looted by the Nazis had been recovered by the German police in a Munich flat. However, The Monuments Men is a sub-par effort. It’s safe to say that 100 years from now, no-one will bother saving this one.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue.
Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany