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The Monuments Men – Movie Review

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The Monuments Men – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

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Within its six-year span, World War II was very eventful as brave men fought in the trenches against a tyrannical group that planned to destroy the world and absolute atrocities were happening that hopefully history will never repeat. There are many stories to be told and there is no shortage of WWII pictures coming out of the film industry and for good reason. Some take a somber tone, while others venture into more light-hearted territory. George Clooney takes more of the latter approach in directing The Monuments Men, but the final result seems slight. There is a certain vibe reminiscent of The Great Escape as it attempts to juggle these multiple characters and side-stories into a fun romp, but it does not gel in a consistent manner.

With Alexandre Desplat’s jolly march and the characters role-called one after the other during the opening titles, Clooney immediately sets this up to evoke a 1940’s era war picture. The interactions and camaraderie of the heroes feel like Steve McQueen and James Garner would have fit comfortably into those roles about fifty years ago. The beginning of the film, as they plan how and where to locate and protect Europe’s most important paintings, is the best part. Clooney and Grant Heslov’s screenplay gives the actors some good banter and the casting is certainly one of the strongest elements of the film. Bill Murray is the stand-out, presenting his usual dry humour and his friendship with Bob Balaban is nicely played. Their subplot has the most moments of them being heroes and presenting their human side; the soldiers who want to desperately go home, but have an important job to do. Hugh Bonneville’s role as British Major Donald Jeffries also showcases the dedication the Monuments Men went into preserving important artifacts. The rest of The Monuments Men could have desperately used that sort of punch and dimensionality.

It never really seems like the audience gets to know these characters as the film jumps from one soldier’s story to another. Despite directing the film, Clooney’s Frank Stokes mostly drifts into the background and mainly comes out to give an important speech to his platoon. Matt Damon’s attempt at speaking French provides a humourous running joke, but he mostly feels detached from everybody else. Cate Blanchett has a nice role as a French art historian (inspired by Rose Valland), but we don’t spend enough time with her, despite the potentially interesting story being told. Valland herself was very instrumental in saving priceless paintings, yet a lot of her accomplishments are treated in such a minor way. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are paired together and both give solid performances, but their characters can basically be described as the old World War I veteran and the cigarette-smoking Frenchman. Looking at how under-developed this set of characters are, The Monuments Men feels like it would have been better served as a mini-series. Under the time constraints of a two-hour motion picture, it desperately tries to tell all of these stories and doesn’t quite hit the mark.

When George Clooney tries to bring a certain gravitas to the film, it also falls short. The question of whether human lives are worth the risk of preserving classical pieces of art is asked, but not necessarily answered. When one of the characters is shot and killed, there is surprisingly little emotion as Stokes gives a speech about their place in the war. When Nazis are burning paintings and the characters are digging through caves, there surprisingly doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency. In one set-piece, Matt Damon finds himself standing on a landmine, but it’s treated in such a casual way, not the sort of behaviour one would expect from soldiers. The Monuments Men wants to be a fun wartime caper, while also tackling the “war is hell” message found in many films of this genre, but the two don’t seamlessly integrate together. Clooney previously tried to tackle a 1930s screwball comedy with Leatherheads and it worked with that film, because it didn’t try to put a serious subject matter in the midst of the story.

Even if the direction and script tend to slide into mediocrity, the production values and acting impress. The depiction of 1940s war-torn Europe is well-done with the crew filming on location in Germany and there’s a real sense of the Second World War coming to a close. Alexandre Desplat’s score is quite possibly the best work the composer has done, providing a surprisingly catchy march that evokes the feeling of Elmer Bernstein’s iconic music in The Great Escape and John Williams’ underappreciated compositions for 1941. Desplat even has a fun, brief role as a helpful companion to Damon. The actors make the best of their underwritten characters, as when are the likes of John Goodman and Jean Dujardin not a delight to watch?

The passion George Clooney had for this project is right up there on the screen and yet, the movie never manages to get away from the middle of the road. There is a great story to be told here, but when juggling so many characters, why is little learned about them? I admire the Great Escape tone the film is striving towards, but it lacks the thrill and character development of that movie. There is a very strong war film hidden within this movie and there is a sense a lot was cut to make it a manageable length. The Monuments Men is ultimately very pleasant, but a story of this scope deserved better.

Review By: Stefan Ellison


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