Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

It’s almost unthinkable that a war film could struggle with developing any kind of narrative conflict but that is indeed the case with George Clooney’s The Monuments Men. While handsomely cast with some of the best character actors Hollywood can boast, the story goes about with nary an incident of interest occurring. Instead of telling an overarching story, which in turn would allow us to better understand these characters and the motivations that drive them, the film is a limp collection of scenes that don't add up.

None of the characters are deeper than the associations their actors bring with them. None of their motivations amount to more than “art is important, so we have to save it.” The Monuments Men is a squandering of talent and manages to turn an interesting story into a dull one.

Based off the nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, The Monuments Men recounts the mission of a group of maturing art historians whom FDR enlisted to protect and recover precious European works of art from the Nazis. The group consists of George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban and Cate Blanchett, as the groups' French contact.

I could mention the characters’ names and roles, but it’d be pointless. You never get a sense that the filmmakers think of these characters as anything more than the old guy played by Bob Balaban or John Goodman. Jean Dujardin’s defining characteristic in the film is that he’s French. Hugh Bonneville’s is that he’s English and was an alcoholic. You get my drift here. Clooney seems to think that once he had cast great actors in his film, the work of characterization was over. But, it kills any chance of the film working.

There are small moments of grace throughout. There’s a heartfelt scene at Christmastime where Bill Murray receives a record of his daughter singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and Murray can do no more than tear up as the record reminds him of everything he is missing at home. A climactic encounter between Clooney and an SS officer is another, in which Clooney reminds the officer that in the future, after the officer has been tried and hung, the only thing that will remind him that the officer ever existed is the flavour of nicotine from his cigarette. These moments show that Clooney had good intentions with the film and occasionally his better filmmaking instincts, as were on display in Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March, win out.

But then there are the many disastrous decisions that sink the film throughout. For instance, Clooney provides voiceover narration reminding the audience of the importance of saving art and the precious artistic legacy that Hitler and his Nazis threaten. The voiceover is meant to be Clooney’s briefing of FDR at the beginning and ending of the film, but its narrative function is to underline the film’s theme, bluntly and repeatedly. When a character dies in the inevitable wartime confrontations, Clooney’s narration chimes in to expound on the meaning of the moment, trying to squeeze whatever emotion out of his story that his script happened to neglect. When a film has to tell you why you should care about a character’s death and what their sacrifice meant, you know you’re in trouble.

The Monuments Men also suffers from a complete lack of momentum. Only in the closing minutes of the film does it seem to begin to move forward with purpose, and at that point, the audience is only invested in hopes that the film will speed up and let them get home and to bed faster.

After finishing The Monuments Men I tweeted that there “should be some kind capital punishment for movies that waste Jean Dujardin.” While I have no desire to banish The Monuments Men to the depths of cinematic hell—it’s too genial to hate—it is a waste of talent and purpose. The real life story of the Monuments Men is an interesting footnote in the history of World War Two. I think I’d rather read that footnote in a textbook than see this film again.

4 out of 10

The Monuments Men (2014, USA/Germany)

Directed by George Clooney; written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter; starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett.