On the face of it, The Monuments Men should make for a great piece of cinema.
A classic “men on a mission” movie set in the dying days of the Second World War, directed by the talented and starring the never-less-than-charming George Clooney, backed by a whole roster of recognizable actors? Why then does the film – a passion project for Clooney – feel so curiously flat?
It could be something about the notion that art, however beautiful or profound, is something we should be willing to sacrifice human live to preserve. When Lieutenant Frank Stokes (Clooney) first assembles his team with the purpose of heading into Occupied Europe in search of stolen art, it’s taken on faith that this is the right thing to do: to be risking the lives of seven men, all but one civilians, mostly academics, to recover the works of Reubens and Picasso.
Stokes’ List of Priceless Antiquities just doesn’t have quite the same dramatic heft as certain other films that have explored the idea of what can be saved during wartime and at what cost to the savers. Apart from some light navel-gazing at difficult moments, Monuments Men never truly comes to terms with this question either, preferring to press blithely on even when at least one The Michelangelo Seven (excuse the terrible art/film pun) meets with an untimely end.
Clooney also takes little opportunity to show off his directing skills amidst the shattered villages of Europe. The action sequences – few as they are – feel perfunctory and Monuments Men only succeeds in generating real tension during a late sequence when the dynamic becomes Americans v. Russians. Shots of Hitler looming in the shadows above a scale model of his proposed Führermuseum can’t help but feel faintly ridiculous; the film striving for an artificial sense of jeopardy.
Which is not to say there aren’t some nice moments: When Bill Murray’s is the shower and a record of his family singing a Christmas song back home comes over the tannoy, it’s genuinely touching. For the most part, though, the film undervalues its actors. When you have John Goodman and the Oscar winning Jean Dujardin on-board, you probably want to make use of them, but Monuments Men can barely muster anything for them to do, so resorts to scattering its forces all over the map.
Matt Damon is left wandering around Paris being charmingly earnest to Cate Blanchett’s suspicious collaborator while Bill Murray and Bob Balaban – the most interesting pairing in the bunch – manage to stumble across the film’s primary villain hiding out in a cabin in Belgium. Monuments Men‘s relies on its actors’ personae to sell their roles. It most memorable scene involves Frank Stokes, the former head of a concentration camp, and Stokes’ first cigarette, but it even that feels like easy catharsis.
At its best, Monuments Men manages to at least imply something about the importance of art, but, at a point in history where millions of people are being systematically exterminated, it all feels a bit small beer. The jokes are never that funny or the drama that moving, and for what should be Saving Private Ryan meets Ocean‘s Eleven, it’s not even, unforgivably, all that much fun.