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.
While 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.
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.
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.