I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed in a movie. Monuments Men boasts an all-star cast and a story about saving art from the Nazis. “How could it not be great?” I wondered. Yet, Monuments Men squandered its rich subject matter and talented actors on a weak plot and over-reliance on sentimentality, resulting in a watchable but frustrating film.
Monuments Men follows a group of art experts and architects tasked with finding and returning artwork stolen by the German Army. Working with the U.S. Army, Frank Stokes (George Clooney), James Grangery (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and their translator Sam (Dimitri Leonidas) embark on a treasure hunt through Germany and France, hoping to find masterpieces before the war is over and they are destroyed or lost to Germany. You see, in addition to all the other atrocities committed under Hitler, he sought to collect seemingly all of European art in a giant museum, stealing ownership of cultural heritage. Others, such as works by Pablo Picasso, he simply destroyed for being inferior or “depraved.” As the Monuments Men see it, art is not to be owned by any single person and in putting their lives on the line to save these works of art they are helping prevent the destruction of Western culture.
To me the most moving aspects of the film focused on the sheer volume of art and other objects that the Nazis stole. When the Monuments Men discover thousands of paintings at a time, along with shelves full of household goods, and barrels of wedding rings and gold teeth, it paints a clearer picture of the nefarious nature of the Nazis collections than any sentimental voiceover could. Instead of dwelling on the art and showing more of the ways that it affects people’s lives, the film focuses on the military misadventures of the Monuments Men, many of whom would not have been able to take part in the war if not for this mission. Through Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone, a member of the French Resistance who fights the theft of art in her own way, and a couple of specific pieces significant to Donald or Sam, the film hints at the connections between art, individuals, and cultural legacies. Largely, however, the plot of the story feels slapped together, sloppily mixing military action, the men’s personal lives, and the quest for the art, not really situating the story within a clear timeline or a coherent plot. Further, it seems like in writing the film, George Clooney relied too heavily on the assumption that people already have strong feelings about Nazis, art, and World War II and leaned heavily on tired tropes and our preconceived ideas instead of doing the work of creating nuanced characters and a meaningful narrative. There are plenty of speeches about the importance of the mission and the boundless value of the art, but the speeches don’t fix the lack of depth in the story. Creative writing 101: show don’t tell. It’s a beautiful story messily told.
Despite the serious problems with the plot of the film, there were plenty of good moments, mostly brought about by the chemistry of the ensemble cast and the snappiness of the dialogue. Although the speeches are eye-rollingly cliched, the quips between the Monuments Men are pretty fun. Bob Balaban and Bill Murray playing off each other is especially great and one scene between John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and a horse is more beautiful than any of the pretty moments Clooney tried to hit us over the head with. Cate Blanchett is basically the only woman in the film and it’s a shame that her character is drawn as such a one-note lonely spinster, because Blanchett delivers a scowl so well it’s fun to watch her make Matt Damon’s character work hard to win her trust.
In all, Monuments Men had all the makings of a great film, but it needed a stronger narrative to hold the good parts together. Rather than making the story its own interesting drama, Clooney leaned to hard on nostalgia and the role of the military, shifting focus from where it really belonged. I look forward to reading the book, though. 2/5 stars
Monuments Men was directed and written by George Clooney with Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel. It runs 118 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.