The Monuments Men Directed by George Clooney; written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov; with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas
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George Clooney is not an untalented director. That, at least, was the impression left by his first two films, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” These were not just interesting movies; they suggested a willingness to travel down unusual cinematic paths and make presumptuous choices that steered away from the purely commercial – an attitude perhaps made possible by Clooney’s confidence in his own popularity. Since then, Clooney’s work as a director has not lived up to this early promise. “The Monuments Men,” his fifth feature, brings his directing career to its lowest point so far.
“The Monuments Men” is a strange kind of failure. Such an experienced television and movie actor as Clooney might have been expected to see the flimsy screenplay for what it was. Moreover, precisely because of Clooney’s acting record, one would have thought he would make better use of the distinguished cast he put together for this project. Never before, however, has a movie allowed such talented, distinctive actors as Bill Murray and John Goodman to become so effaced that their performances leave behind almost no trace of a memory.
“The Monuments Men” is an adventure movie set toward the end of World War II, and perhaps its failure grew out of Clooney’s reluctance to make such a film in the tradition of “The Dirty Dozen,” “Where Eagles Dare” and the many other movies that turned the memory of that war into a source of popular entertainment – and which often seemed to be directed at a teenage audience. Whatever Clooney’s intentions, however, the result does not work on any level. “The Monuments Men” is still an adventure war movie, but one that fails to fascinate and thrill the audience or to document the true story on which it is based so as to give it a memorable historical heft. The failure is especially blatant if you compare the film to John Frankenheimer’s 1964 “The Train,” which starred Burt Lancaster and Jeanne Moreau and was set against the same historical backdrop. Unlike Clooney’s film, however, “The Train” succeeded in combining sweeping adventure with historical severity.
Toward the end of the war, when Adolf Hitler, a frustrated artist and obsessive art collector, understood that the Third Reich would not survive a thousand years, he ordered that all of Europe’s great art works be destroyed after his death. Harvard art professor Frank Stokes, played by Clooney (and based on the real-life figure of George Stout) is entrusted with thwarting Hitler’s scheme. He recruits a team of British, American and French associates, all of them too old to fight in the war but offering relevant expertise: two art scholars (Matt Damon and Hugh Bonneville), a historian (Bob Balaban), a sculptor (John Goodman), an architect (Bill Murray), an art dealer (Jean Dujardin) and a young Jewish man of German origin (Dimitri Leonidas) who is recruited for his fluency in German.
“The Monuments Men” falls under the category of adventure movies (or crime movies) in which a leader puts together a team of professionals for a mission, and part of the fun usually lies in following the recruitment process. In this case, however, even that is absent. We are not told how Stokes is selected for the job (in the role, Clooney has a gray mustache that makes him look like a British officer from one of countless British war movies, and his performance is as colorless as his facial hair). Nor do we get to know his associates, who scatter through Europe to locate and save the art works destined for destruction. They are all just pawns on the movie’s chessboard, where a clumsy game plays itself out without involving us in its human elements. As a result, we remain indifferent to the fates of those involved in the adventure.
Within the male environment typically found in this kind of movie, there is one woman, a severe-looking Parisian who works with the Germans, cataloguing the art works at the Jeu de Paume museum. When Matt Damon’s character contacts her, she is initially suspicious, and in general is afraid of being charged as a Nazi collaborator after the war. But of course she undergoes a change of heart, which includes even a dim spark of romance. Because she is played by Cate Blanchett (who, to her credit, does not try to speak English with a French accent), she has a stronger presence than the rest of the cast, even if her role is as limited as the movie itself.
As Clooney and his cowriter, Grant Heslov, may also have realized, the obsession with salvaging artworks – however legendary – toward the end of World War II, when the horrors of that war were beginning to come to light, raises some serious ethical questions. This realization, too, might be partly responsible for the movie’s failure. “The Monuments Men” does raise ethical dilemmas, but it confronts them in a primary and even childish way (the movie will ask at one point whether saving art is worth the loss of human life). Seeking a way out of this ideological maze, the movie gives the search for the masterpieces a near-religious tinge that borders on the embarrassing. This becomes even more obvious given the importance of the quest to find Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges sculpture, which the Germans took from a church in the Belgian city and moved to Austria. Finding the statue just as it is about to be destroyed gives the movie its plot climax, whose tone is practically one of religious ecstasy.
Perhaps Clooney’s essential decency got in his way this time, with his attempt to make a respectable movie restricting him too much. On the altar of decency and respectability, he ended up sacrificing plot coherence, human depth and especially entertainment, which could have given historical validity to the memory of the events being described. “The Monuments Men” is filled with veneration for great art, but its own severe artistic shortcomings cause this veneration to seem forced and even embarrassing.