The true story of ‘The Monuments Men’ is a remarkable and often overlooked slice of WW2/art history. The newly released ‘Based on a True Story’ film, sadly, falls under the ‘UNremarkable’ banner. My reaction to this film surprised me, as there were so many factors that fall into categories that I like, admire and respect. First off, The Story:
‘The Monuments Men’ follows an eclectic group of artists, sculptors and architects as they are pushed into service with the American Army, following the D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944. They are tasked with trailing the Front Line, in order to locate and recover the thousands of priceless paintings, sculptures and monuments that were stolen by the Nazis and intended to eventually wind up adorning the walls of Hitler’s proposed Fuhrer Museum in Linz, Austria. When it becomes evident that the German’s are in full retreat from the Allied/Russian onslaught, orders are given to destroy the art, lest if fall back into the hands of its rightful, largely Jewish owners. Once the orders are intercepted by Allied Intelligence, it becomes a race against time to save an artistic legacy of staggering proportions.
There are so many cool aspects to this film that it’s somewhat depressing to acknowledge that it simply doesn’t work.
First off is Star and Director George Clooney. I have a hefty chunk of respect for this charismatic and clearly intelligent man, and the one example I’ve seen from him in the director’s chair, ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ (2002) was surprisingly effective and well-constructed. I also know that his other 3 films are regarded fondly by critics and audiences alike (I should really make the effort). But somehow, under Clooney’s direction, the pieces for this one just didn’t come together for me. And it certainly wasn’t due to the casting.
As usual, Clooney has surrounded himself with an accomplished and likable set of supporting players. We get long-time buddy of Clooney’s Matt Damon, the always awesome Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett, in among a slew of other familiar faces. All of them do what they can with what they have, which unfortunately isn’t much. There is virtually no ‘fleshing’ to these potentially fascinating characters. We are introduced to them in terms of their professions, with virtually no exposition pertaining to them as ‘people’. This leads to a lack of investment via the audience into the supposed chemistry between these ‘individuals’. Sure, some chuckle-worthy lines bounce back and forth among the group, but there never seems to be any emotional connection. Even when a couple of the men perish in pursuit of their goal, we never feel the impact of the deaths in the remaining team members. Sure, we’re told that they feel something, but that’s all it feels like. Being told, not shown. The most emotionally effective scene in the flick doesn’t even involve multiple characters. It belongs solely to Bill Murray’s architect character, alone in a shower tent at The Battle of the Bulge as he reflects on what this mission may cost him, while his grandchildren’s voices echo out over the camp from a nearby phonograph. That’s one of the kickers with this film. I can readily pick out a number of genuinely good scenes (basic training, amusing sniper attack, the land mine etc) but the primary flaw lies in the connective tissue.
This film, in many parts, feels like it got butchered in the editing room. The pacing is WAY off, with a skewed and confusing narrative fused with abrupt location changes and passages of time. I knew the film was going to be in trouble when, at the onset of the mission, Clooney’s commander ‘Stokes’ character assigns the wacky group of academics to different ‘theaters’ of the war, almost immediately after the rigmarol of getting them all together. Anyone expecting Ocean’s 11-style hi-jinks will be disappointed, as the chance for amusing group ‘character building’ vanishes as each of them go their separate ways. Then, as we take in the war-time adventures of this scattered group, editing and continuity errors began to rear their ugly heads. Along with contributing to the scatter-shot feel of the movie, some of them also lent skepticism about Clooney’s ability to keep necessary cohesion to overall story-telling. There are a few, but the one that leaps to mind most readily involves a key character going, literally, from one scene to another being able to walk just fine…to abruptly needing the use of a cane, with absolutely no on-screen cause for it. As soon as I saw it, my mind leapt to ‘DELETED SCENE’! It was sloppy-as-hell editing that was surprisingly jarring in it’s obviousness.
The Bottom Line is that this IS a story that deserves to be told, but I can’t help but to think it would’ve been better served under the direction of someone like Spielberg (WW2 movie connection aside) or Zemeckis.
‘The Monuments Men’ deserves a tightened narrative, stronger character connections, less sloppy editing and more of a sense of ‘importance’ to the artifacts that our main characters are pursuing.
Despite my less-than-stellar reaction, I DO acknowledge that there is some commendable technical aspects on display.
The trappings of WW2 are present and accounted for. The costumes, props and vehicles felt largely genuine. There was a healthy ‘scattering’ of chuckles throughout, and it’s a story that DOES deserve to be brought to the public’s attention. It just needed to be done better.
If you like the cast, or are a history buff…you’ll probably get something out of this one. But as a ‘whole’, it is a sadly unremarkable film that needed more work before it was released to the movie-going masses. Certainly good in some respects, but seeing it in a theatre is VERY much NOT necessary. ‘The Monuments Men’ is better suited for Netflix viewing on a rainy Sunday afternoon.