The lesser-known story of the soldiers tasked with recovering stolen art during WWII is one worth examining. To adequately fill a two-hour movie, however, greater creative liberties should have been employed to offer a tighter pace, heightened adventure, and more moving poignancy. “The Monuments Men” stocks its cast with a miscellany of esteemed, recognizable performers, and while this certainly keeps the events more engaging than a less competent crew could have afforded, the film is far from packed with wall-to-wall intrigue. In fact, very little suspense creeps into the scenarios at all. The film swaggers back and forth between comic joviality and the depressing tragedies of military engagements. Though touted as “the greatest art heist in history,” the film rarely drums up enough intensity to rival the treasure hunts found in the purely fictional escapades of Indiana Jones or Benjamin Gates. While refreshing in its light-hearted take on a WWII adventure, the movie lacks the gravity to be remembered as an essential addition to the war genre.
As WWII finds the Allied forces steadily crossing Europe towards Germany, many significant pieces of art are succumbing to the destruction of war. Determined not to allow any further loss to such important history and culture, Lt. George Stout (George Clooney) leads a ragtag group of soldiers, dubbed the “Monuments Men,” onto the frontlines to secure art in danger of ruination from battle. They must also locate and return the countless private collections looted by Nazi officers. While Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Lt. Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) seek out clues to track down trucks delivering paintings to Hitler, Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) attempts to uncover information about confiscated art from former museum curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). When Stout learns of Hitler’s “Nero Decree,” a directive instructing his men to destroy all their plundered art hoards should the Third Reich fall, the Monuments Men must race against time to locate the stashes before they are lost forever.
The problem with “The Monuments Men” is in its execution. It’s conducted like a history lesson, but is devoid of the details of a hypnotic educational experience. The events are simple and uncluttered, with a few essential clarifications notably missing, which leave the viewer uninformed about particular military climates of cities, citizens, and enemy movements across Europe. It’s difficult to absorb the seriousness of various situations, the deadliness, and the likelihood of success or failure when territories are merely pointed out on a map. Insurmountable odds are evident, but their routine confrontations don’t chronicle the elaborations needed to instill anticipation. Specifically, small groups of elderly, underprepared, briefly trained ex-soldiers ferry about warzones without military aid, firepower, or the manpower presumed indispensable in carrying out their assignment.
The mission itself is also problematic in that it largely fails to convince audiences that lives are worth the risk for rare art. Although the observers are turned into active participants in the fight (through loss), it’s easier to side with the commanders that refuse to sacrifice their men for paintings, statues, and tapestries. With this emotional conflict is a very uneven tone, transitioning from the 1960s’ take on adventurous, upbeat, frequently comical World War II hijinks to the more somber, realistic portrayal of devastation, as seen in all similarly themed films in the last decade. Director Clooney clearly envisioned an interpretation along the lines of “The Great Escape,” especially with the witty banter, the chirpy marches, and the end credits sequence. A momentary diversion for “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” mesmerizingly sung a cappella by Nora Sagal, demonstrates a much more artistic, meaningful bit of editing. While the funnier scenes tend to get lost in the long, slow journey to recover artifacts (most given little significance), the sincerer shots with Cate Blanchett, who exhibits a sympathetic, believable, multifaceted, conflicted woman with genuine emotions, are certainly the most worthy minutes.
- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)