The Monuments Men is based on one of the most fascinating stories of the Second World War, a real-life underdog tale that has been begging to be told on screen. In 1944 Allied forces discover that Hitler is looting and amassing huge quantities of paintings and sculptures from museums and private collections across Europe – including works by Rembrandt, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo. There are rumours of his intentions to create a massive complex to display the art in Austria. The Allied plan of action involves gathering an unlikely ensemble of museum curators and art historians who are given to task of going behind enemy lines to locate, identify, and safely return the stolen pieces of art.
Starring Cate Blanchett, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, and John Goodman, The Monuments Men boasts an incredible array of talent. Clooney is to the fore both on and off-screen, taking on the roles of director and writer in a recipe that bred success in 2005’s Good Night and Good Luck and 2011’s The Ides of March – but this film sees Clooney shift away from the slower paced political intricacies of his earlier films, The Monuments Men is a film that is focused on action. Or at least it tries to be, as the shift in pace is not as smooth as might have been hoped for.
At first glance, Clooney’s theatre of war has none of the muddy, bloody, bleak realism that we’ve become accustomed to. Instead it is a throwback to a time before Saving Private Ryan to a Saturday matinee, moustachioed version of World War II complete with all the colourful kitsch you might expect to see emblazoning the cover of a Warlord comic. It’s against this backdrop that The Monuments Men works best, leaning heavily on comedy and action, and it’s where Murray, Goodman, and Dujardin are allowed to shine.
While the large all-star cast is attractive, it also brings problems as it seems that Clooney struggles in an attempt to grant everyone equal screen time. As the characters are based in several locations in Europe, the end result is a plot stitched together from too many formulaic episodes that fail to provide any character growth or depth. There’s an inherent tension when the film then tries to capture a historical reality that jars with the more cartoonish elements, and the emotional chords that the film endeavours to strike are too easily drowned out by the fanfare and marching drums. Running at a lengthy two hours, you cannot help but feel that things could have been much improved with a tighter edit.
While it is a valiant effort to bring an important part of history to light, ultimately The Monuments Men is a good story told badly. It does ask us some interesting questions – how much value do we place on artistic expression? And can cultural artefacts be more valuable than human lives? But unfortunately these are likely to go unheard. While the real life Monuments Men had a clear reason for being, the film seems confused about what it hopes to achieve and as despite great source material, and a wonderful cast, it fails to be inspiring.
Published in Gazette Group titles (Swords Gazette, Malahide Gazette, Blanchardstown Gazette, Castleknock Gazette, Dundrum Gazette, Dun Laoghaire Gazette, Lucan Gazette, Clondalkin Gazette) on 13th Feb 2014.