Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Billy Murray, John Goodman
Director: George Clooney
Writer(s): George Cloone, Grant Heslov, Robert M. Edsel
Runtime: 118 minutes
Richard Roeper, who you may remember as the former television partner of the late Roger Ebert of ‘Ebert and Roeper’ fame, writes in his review of ‘The Monuments Men’ that this is a “solid albeit slow building film with few dull moments.” I like to imagine if Roger were still alive (and never lost his ability to speak,) and ‘Ebert and Roeper’ were still on the air that right after Roeper dared utter that nonsensical line on the show that Ebert would pick up a nearby phonebook and thwack him in the face with it. I find it nearly impossible to believe that any fully functioning sentient human being sat through this entire movie and was honestly able to say afterwards that there were “few full moments” contained therein… This entire movie is like a monument to dull moments, which considering the cast, the story, and the considerable amount of money put behind this picture is a staggering achievement in its own right. Everyone has the right to their own opinions of course, but I imagine that if this movie does not bore you, you might also enjoy browsing Youtube for videos of drying paint, and advanced lecture tutorials about how to properly store mothballs.
Look, I really wanted to like this movie going in. I had very high hopes for it as evidenced by the fact that I saw it while still in theatres instead of just waiting for the DVD to come out in a few months. I know there are those who find subject matter like this tedious, but I am far from having that opinion myself. In fact, I would imagine myself to be in the exact target demographic for this film. I love history, and am the kind of person who would gladly spend an entire day watching a well made documentary series about some obscure group of men who saved precious art from Hitler during World War II. I also am a big fan of classic art and European culture and am quite interested in learning more about the history of anything related to that kind of thing. I’m also a fairly big fan of many of the actors in this movie such as George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray just to name a few. But as said above, even with all of that going for it going in, I had trouble even keeping my eyes open through a good chunk of this movie.
So with all of that said, what exactly happened here? Starting out this movie kept my spirits high with its old school Elmer Bernstein like score and the opening scene that shows Clooney and Damon’s characters assembling the group of men that would make up ‘The Monuments Men’ (or the ‘Dainty Dozen as one NPR reviewer calls them) whose job it is to protect classic artwork from Nazi thieves. I was ready for this to be a good old school war movie like ‘The Great Escape’ or ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ instead of another blood and guts soaked shaky cam testament to the inherent inhumanity and unpredictability of war, which I think we all firmly understand by now. And to its credit ‘The Monuments Men’ does try to be more of the former than the latter, but when it gets down to actually developing the characters contained in the story, that’s when it just started to fall flat with me. ( It was not that long ago that I watched this movie but I find now that without turning to Google that I cannot recall even a single name of any of the main characters here.) This movie wants to be a stirring tribute to the real life men who served in this unit, but, it also wants to be an enjoyable classic Hollywood movie. By playing it straight up the middle it winds up achieving neither of those goals.
For this to be a more coherent movie I think it would have been better served to pick a side. If Clooney wanted to make a straight up documentary style tribute (which I think is the wrong tone for this kind of picture) then fine, amp up the realism and you’re off to the races. However, if it went that way then you would have to re-write all of the scenes that basically treat all of the Germans in this movie as cartoon caricatures of “pure evil”. The first high ranking officer we meet comes off more like a James Bond villain admiring his art collection than a real life person (his assistant even spits in his glass to let us know what a douche-bag he is), which I assume he is supposed to be. But of course if Clooney wanted to make a purely stylized Hollywood version of this story then why oh why did you take the greatly talented stars such as Murray and Goodman and basically do nothing with them here? Either of them with just a smidgeon to work with here could have delivered the goods. But as it is, Murray just seems bored (as he usually does these days) and Goodman seems like he’s hamming it up in some scenes just to keep himself occupied.
One other thing that hurt this movie for me was that as the story progressed I found myself agreeing more with the people arguing against the main group’s mission than I did with them. As big of a fan of history and tradition as I am I would agree with what one impassioned commander said here, even if it is a five hundred year old church tower full of priceless art, if it has enemy snipers in it, then you have to take it out. I respect and admire everything these guys did in real life, but there’s perhaps a reason that it took this long to get around to telling their particular story . The movie is filled with many self important monologues by George Clooney reaffirming the importance of the mission, and saying basically that you can kill people, and there will be more people to take their place, but if you destroy their art, their history, and their accomplishments, then it is just like they never existed at all, which is, of course “what Hitler wants”, which is kind of like the 1940s of equivalent of “letting the terrorists win”. For all of its high haughty talk about admiring art though, the movie would work considerably better if it instead focused a little more on crafting some artistic merit of its own.
Just so this review isn’t all negativity I might as well make note of some of the things I did like about this movie. There are select scenes here and there that did work for me, such as a scene near the end with Clooney interrogating a captured German soldier (who like I said is basically a caricature of the soulless evil Nazi scourge) and completely owning him with a story about how in a few months he’ll be at a café eating his favorite bagel, sipping some coffee, and reading about how said soldier was recently hung for war crimes, in the New York Times, and after which, he’ll never think about him again. There are a couple scenes like that in the movie that break up the monotony and provide some good quality entertainment, but they are too few and too far in between to tolerate the rest of this long, arduous slog. I also was among the few reviewers that actually liked the Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett love interest subplot, which admittedly, does not get nearly enough time to develop here, but their scenes together were sweetly done. The movie looks quite polished and there are moments here and there that gave me the impression that this could have been the movie I so hoped it would be.
I spent a good deal of time trying to think of witty alternate titles to this movie. I contemplated ditties such as Ocean’s 14: Cracking Hitler’s Safe, but this movie has none of the cleverness or wit that made the Oceans movies so endearing. Then I thought perhaps Inglorious Art Snobs, but this movie has none of the ballsyness that made Tarintino’s World War II picture so epic and memorable. And even the aforementioned ‘Dainty Dozen’ doesn’t really work, as the ‘Dirty Dozen’ was an example of how to do this exact type of movie right. They took a real life story, decided to Hollywood it up a little and got an all star cast and proceeded to make a gritty war time classic where this movie just uses its cast for name value instead of screen value. As one other reviewer pointed out, if Clooney had spent more time thinking about what he wanted to put on screen instead of just selecting which buddies he wanted to hang out with in Germany for a few months, we might have had something here. In the end the only thing it is safe to call ‘Monuments Men’ is a flat out dud.