Review by C.J. Bunce
It could have been a more serious film for fans of Ocean’s Eleven. It could have been The Dirty Dozen. Unfortunately, writer/director George Clooney missed plenty of opportunities to place The Monuments Men alongside the shelves of great World War II movies of years past. With a cast including Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Matt Damon (along with Clooney) this should have been an easy victory. So where’s the miss? Clooney couldn’t decide which movie he wanted to make: a World War II biopic or a comedy. The blend of both results in a merely watchable film, but comes in below the cast’s past works.
If you’ve seen any documentaries on the actual events that inspired the film, you already understand the guiding principle of the story: It is absolutely worth fighting and dying for to preserve those artifacts that define your culture. The Monuments Men is the story of a handful of art experts turned soldiers at the end of WWII who tried to assemble and return to their owners–repatriate–prized works of art, some religious, some by renowned art masters, some paintings, some sculptures, and other cultural artifacts, despite the Nazi efforts to squirrel away and often destroy vast cashes of these looted spoils of war.
The best element of the real-life story is not about any particular Monument’s man, but the actual account of Rose Valland, a French art scholar who covertly kept a log book of where the Nazis in France shipped stolen art. She allowed The Monuments Men to fulfill their mission of returning so much art to rightful owners after war’s end. Like the Valland-inspired Claire Simone, played by Cate Blanchett in the movie, Valland worked in the Jeu De Paume museum in Paris during the Nazi occupation, which was used as the German base of operations for hoarding Europe’s art treasures. Unknown to the Nazis, Valland spoke German, and used this to chronicle the details of the Nazi’s operation. Unfortunately, Valland’s story becomes only a secondary plot to the men of The Monuments Men, and her account is never as exciting as the real-life Valland. In fact, the foreign language intrigue of Valland’s story is completely ignored in the film.
Clooney begins with a misstep that is only slightly repaired by film’s end. His character, Frank Stokes, comes up with the idea of saving the art and is responsible for putting the band of unlikely war brothers together, much like Lee Marvin’s Major Reisman in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen, the fictional story of a U.S. Army mission to train a dozen convicted murderers to take on an impossible assassination mission against the Nazis that inspired Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds. But Stokes makes the statement early in the film that his men shouldn’t do anything to get killed just to save the artwork–the artwork is not worth dying for. By film’s end deaths of soldiers who die trying to save the art reveal the opposite lesson–it is as important to save the art and culture of a people as much as saving life itself. And it is worth dying for. Yet Clooney and his characters seem apologetic about this, as if modern audiences will think it absurd that we send men to war to die saving art. Countless movie reviewers missed the point, too, with plenty of bashing the film with the flippant comment “it’s hard to care about saving art when people are dying in a war.” Clooney bears most of the blame for that misfire. The critics illustrate the problem of Clooney’s confused message, in part from their own ignorance of the value of culture and in part from Clooney’s failure to communicate the message–the entire point of the film–clearly and effectively.
War movies, as much as required by any genre, require gravity. High strakes drive intrigue and create excitement. The stakes in war are obvious. So why don’t we ever feel quite like circumstances are dire in The Monuments Men? Even when men die saving rare artworks, their deaths are presented as the result of acts of stupidity, not heroic efforts. That’s a disservice to the real soldiers who lived the story. The Dirty Dozen was full of raised stakes in a fictional story: Will their covert mission get blown before it has a chance to work? Will The Dirty Dozen be successful once they get to Germany? The Monuments Men had a real-life story of life and death to pull from, but missed the opportunity to pull in the pain, fear, despair, and challenges of war.
The result is the odd instance of a quiet, almost light-hearted World War II movie that doesn’t give adequate credit to the actual Monuments Men. Watchable for some mildly amusing banter between Murray’s and Balaban’s characters, the always enjoyable chemistry between Clooney and Matt Damon, and the superb acting ability of Cate Blanchett, The Monuments Men is merely okay, and not the monumental WWII film it promises to be.
The Monuments Men is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.