REVIEW: “The Monuments Men”

MONUMENTS poster

Inspired by an incredible true story and armed with a wonderful ensemble cast, “The Monuments Men” has all the ingredients to be a sure thing. The talent behind the film starts with George Clooney who co-writes, stars, and takes another turn at directing. Clooney has directed some fantastic movies but “Leatherheads” and “The Ides of March” showed us that he’s far from infallible. But I was excited once I saw “The Monuments Men” on the horizon and it quickly became one of my most eagerly anticipated films. Pretty high expectations, right?

I first heard the story of “The Monuments Men” from author Robert Edsel. He was doing an interview and talking about his new book which told the true story of Allied soldiers who sought out and saved important works of art from Hitler and the Nazis during World War 2. It’s incredible stuff and once I heard about a film adaptation I was hooked. Clooney’s picture is loosely based on the actual events which feeds the movie’s strengths but also its weaknesses. So far people have pounced on the film expecting more from it or wanting something entirely different. Personally I thought “The Monuments Men” was fantastic.

Monuments2While watching the film my very first feelings were nostalgic. “The Monuments Men” is a throwback to the old ensemble war pictures but with its own unique twist. I immediately began thinking of movies like “The Green Berets”, “The Guns of Navarone”, and “The Dirty Dozen”. Even the end credits hearken back to those older pictures. My father loved these films and growing up I was able to watch them and learn to appreciate them. I think Clooney gets that and he knows what he’s doing. I give him a ton of credit for recapturing the vibes and nuances of those past genre pieces.

But the big difference between this film and the older ones can be found in the characters. This team isn’t comprised of hardened frontline soldiers. These are common men who possess particular skills needed to complete this unique mission. They are museum curators, art historians, and architects. They are older men who are more comfortable with Picassos and Monets than machine guns and hand grenades. Their mission brings them in as the war in Europe is ending. But even though they slip around the battlefields and combat, eventually the elements of the war effects them. They are at times joking and playful – it’s what you could expect from these types of characters. But they are no longer curating museums, designing skyscrapers, or painting. They are in the war and they constantly come across sober reminders of that.

Monuments1

I love this entire dynamic which diverts the movie from a common action-oriented path. There really isn’t much action at all which hurts the film in some people’s estimation. Personally I don’t think the story calls for much action. Instead it focuses on the mother of all treasure hunts through an assortment of beautiful European locales. But their mission isn’t easy. There are still wartime tensions, a greedy Russian army, and the Nazis who are under direct orders from Hitler to destroy everything. The seven who make up The Monuments Men split up and spread out across Europe hunting clues, fleeing danger, and tracking down as much stolen art as they can.

Clooney’s film has plenty of shifts in tone. The movie sometimes feels easygoing and lighthearted only to be dark and somber a few scenes later. Some have taken issue with this saying the humor feels out of place. I completely disagree because I found the humor to be measured and conscientious. The humor was there but it felt light. There were never any attempts at big laugh-out-loud moments which would have really been jarring.

And then there is the cast. I love watching good actors act and we certainly get to do that. Clooney plays the team leader and he’s joined by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville. Everyone of them gives fine performances and there is some unique chemistry that develops. Cate Blanchett is also excellent playing someone based on the fascinating real Rose Valland. All of these characters are given their moments to shine and we are given small bits of information about them along the way. Unfortunately it’s not enough to fully develop the characters – only to make us want to know more about them. That was a little disappointing although a movie like this could get bogged down with layers upon layers of backstory.

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Phedon Papamichael (who also did brilliant work in 2013’s “Nebraska”) offers up some fine cinematography and the war-torn set designs look amazing. Alexandre Desplat’s score adds to the film’s old-school flavor that Clooney is obviously shooting for. The performances, the nostalgia, the clever balance of the script, the uniqueness of the story. Everything I’ve mentioned comes together in a film that I found satisfying but many others clearly didn’t. What has caused the strong backlash to this film? Was it the lack of action, the deliberate pacing, the scattered storytelling? These things are certainly present but for me they made it a better film and they help steer it away from the conventional movie we could have gotten.

As a lover of art and World War II history, the story of “The Monuments Men” connected with me from the start. As a lover of the fun ensemble war pictures that were all but gone by the end of the 1960s, Clooney’s vision and approach hits the target. To say I’m bewildered by the negative reception to this film is an understatement. I don’t quite know what to make of it. But movies are a funny thing and they certainly effect people differently. For me this was a real treat – a movie that doesn’t pander to conventionalism, moves at its own pace, and treats its subject with respect. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s certainly not a bad film either and I for one loved it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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36 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Monuments Men”

    • Thanks man. I figure I’ll have to do some defending of my score. I do think the characters could have been given more to do but it really didn’t bother me. I just had a blast watching them work.

    • Thanks. It’s getting hammered left and right. But I honestly don’t get it. I think it’s misunderstood in some ways. I also think that people were expecting something considerably different. I don’t know. I’m anxious to read some more of these different takes on it.

    • I’ll be honest, all the negative reviews are baffling to me. I can see some people not going for it but the volume of bad ratings is something else. The main thing is to appreciate it for what it is. It’s not a big typical action-packed World War II movie. It’s a throwback to the old 1960s ensemble war pictures. I love those movies and I love this one.

  1. Nice review Keith, and interesting to read a different opinion as I’ve read a few negative things about it. I might give this a go as you make a good case for it and I also have a soft spot for those big cast war films of the 70s.

    • Thanks. I think if you’re familiar with those ensemble war films you’ll notice the similarities immediately. Of course the big difference is that these aren’t typical soldiers and this isn’t a full-fledged action picture. I really appreciated that about the movie.

  2. Well! I must say, nice to read a positive review. 4.5? You are once again in the minority, Keith 😉 I think you went to see it in the right frame of mind. 60s war film in 2014. I think you nailed it why it disappointed so many. I on the other hand, love 60s films, so I reckon I ought to get out and see it. 🙂

    • Oh I loved this film Cindy. I think you’re spot-on, a 1960s style picture in 2014. Clearly people didn’t respond to that choice or didn’t get it. I’m not sure. But it does differentiate itself from those old films. There’s not near as much action as you may think. That made the film dull for some but for me it made perfect sense. If these characters had been thrown into battle and tons of action the movie would have immediately felt conventional and a bit ridiculous. I like how it defines itself and how it tells its story.

      I figure I’m in for an uphill battle but I feel very comfortable defending this film. Hope you like it too.

  3. Glad you enjoyed the film, I read so many reviews of people being disappointed with it. I’ll probably catch this on DVD for Clooney and Dujardin but I guess the negative reception may have something to do with the shifts in tone you mentioned – it is hard to pull off and when badly done it can sink the film.

    • I really had no problems with the shifts in tone mainly because they aren’t dramatic. None of the humor is done for big raucous laughs and the few jokes we get feel completely in tune with these particular characters. Hope you like it when you get a chance to see it.

  4. I’m so glad to hear a positive review of this film, I personally can’t wait to see it and I’m happy you enjoyed it. I think Clooney is a very talented director (have to say I absolutely loved The Ides of March) so I have been anticipating The Monuments Men for a very long time. Hopefully I’ll have the same response to it as you!

    • Thanks for reading. I thought it was a fantastic movie and I’m anxious to see it again. Just don’t go in thinking it’s a run-of-the-mill wartime action movie. It’s slower paced, it’s focused on its main story, and it’s a tip of the hat to ensemble war films that were so popular in the 1960s. I appreciated it for that. It wasn’t conventional at all. I’m really anxious to hear if you like it too.

  5. Glad you enjoy this more than I did Keith! It had its moments and for the most part it was entertaining, but I really can’t say it’s a great film for the reasons I’ve stated in my review. At the same time, it’s not as bad as the critics made it out to be either.

    • I absolutely loved it. I loved the nostalgic throwback vibes. It’s clearly patterned after the fun war films of the 1960s but it also has its own flavor. I was afraid it was going to be heavy on the action which would be completely inconsistent with these characters. I really felt it balanced it out nicely.

      I need to go back and read your review more thoroughly. I try not to immediately read reviews of movies I’m going to be seeing within a few days. I definitely saw the numerous low scores and now I’m going back and reading people’s thoughts.

  6. I’ve mostly heard bad things about this but the trailer looked intriguing and since my husband is an amateur WWII historian I am going to end up seeing it one way or another. Glad someone enjoyed it. Gives me hope.

    • The trailers were interesting. The first trailer really had me worried. I didn’t like the way it framed the movie. But the second trailer got me back on board. It had me excited to see the film.

      The main thing is to go in with the right expectations. It’s not an action film. It’s also an homage of sorts to a once popular sub-genre of war pictures from the 1960s. Personally I love that because I love those old films. It’s also not a big character-driven movie. We get just enough information about these men – enough to care about them and be curious. But the central focus is on the mission itself and I love the way it played out.

      I hope you get to see it soon. If you do please stop back by and tell me what you think.

  7. Very nice, my man. It’s great some positivity at last. So many haters on this film. You’ve given me more of an incentive to give it a go now.

    By the way, sorry for my lack of involvment lately. Things are busy, busy, busy around these here parts just now 😉

    • Hey man come see me. I’m the guy out here all alone on a deserted island created for lovers of “The Monuments Men”. I really, really like this movie. It doesn’t dive deep into its characters but I love its central focus on the story. And I also found myself smiling throughout the movie as I noticed little tips of the hat to those great 1960s ensemble movies. That’s what really won me over. I love those old films.

      And brother you don’t owe me an explanation. I know exactly what you mean. This is the first chance to breathe I’ve had all day. Work has been killing me for several days. I have several of your reviews bookmarked to read. So I know exactly what you’re saying. No worries my friend!

    • Dujardin is great. To be honest I’m a huge fan of his so I may be a bit bias, but I found him to be really good.

      The cast, I thought they worked nicely. There is some nice chemistry that pops up and they all have their moments to shine. No one outshines the other. I thought they all fall into their roles nicely.

  8. Nice review and glad you liked it. I wasn’t so impressed, mainly due to there not being enough space to really get to know the characters. I agree with you that the film wasn’t lacking action, but for me the somber moments weren’t really somber enough – I guess I didn’t really find them convincing.

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