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Movie review: 'The Monuments Men' is a war film with an identity crisis

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The Monuments Men

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"THE MONUMENTS MEN"-- 2 STARS

One must admit that it's not very often that a film based on a true story has an identity crisis. Movies set up with that framework tend to either be astutely historical and serious about getting that true story right or, at the very least, skew to be light and hearty about giving a true story some movie gloss for entertainment's sake. This year's very Best Picture race has both sides of this cinematic sense of identity for true stories. Front-runner "12 Years a Slave" is entirely and unflinchingly serious about telling its first-person account while fellow contender "American Hustle" paints with a broad brush of style to take its historical crime case and give it some artificial flash. In this critic's opinion, the former succeeds and the latter fails for exactly those respective reasons.

"The Monuments Men" may be the rare enigma and case of identity crisis where a movie doesn't know what it's trying to be. Based on Robert M. Edsel's novel The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the source material covers an actual Allied war program involving art experts and intellectuals (quite a decorated list in fact) aiding the war effort to save and preserve cultural relics and artifacts in the midst of a destructive war spanning multiple continents. With that background, the film has the roots to be serious and important while still being different and interesting. However, by playing for panache and polish with generic archetypes and doing little to create either believable peril or an invested story, "Monuments Men" fails to properly tell the history it seeks out to tell.

George Clooney directs "Monuments Men" and stars as Frank Stokes, a theologian and historian with the President's ear and a case strong enough to create the Monuments Men unit of fellow scholars who can enter Western Europe and either thwart or retrieve art and antiquities that Adolf Hitler seeks to keep for his own. For Stokes, this theft and destruction can erase a society's culture and ruin the livelihood of centuries of progress and history. His first recruit is James Granger (Matt Damon), an old colleague and fellow art expert.

Frank and James, in an overly brisk opening credits sequence, recruit fellow friends and experts to join their cause. Nameless at first and with little back story, they enlist architect Richard Campbell (the timeless Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), thespian Preston Savitz (Wes Anderson regular Bob Balaban), French artist Jean Claude Clermont ("The Artist" Oscar winner Jean Dujardin), and British contact Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of "Downton Abbey"). Each have their expertise to bring to the mission, but none of them are traditional soldiers.

Together after basic training, the crew crosses the English Channel after D-Day and arrives in France as the war seemingly begins to close in the Allies favor. James heads to occupied Paris to collaborate with a Resistance woman (Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett) who worked in the Nazi offices that dispatched much of the Parisian art. Frank and the rest team up in pairs and split up across Western Europe tracking clues towards Hitler's plans for the art and where it may be hidden. With a war still going on and the value of their target, this puts our boys in harm's way.

Getting back to the identity crisis at hand, very few things fit together in "The Monuments Men." Part of the time, the film feels like an off-shoot of "The Great Escape" with clever and cheeky characters, played by trusty and likable actors, that are thrown into a war they are not suited for with a quirky mission that's very out of the ordinary. Other times, the atrocities of war around them hit like a hammer just before or just after moments of lightness.

That blend doesn't match up appropriately and it hurts the film. That aforementioned history-less opening montage that offers scant details about these characters were are supposed to invest in doesn't help either cause. When they are witty, it doesn't matter and goes over our heads from an incomplete character. When they are serious, the resonance doesn't have value towards something you don't know or care about. I think the last movie that wavered this far between identity and tone was last winter's "Gangster Squad" which poorly tried to blend the coolness of the Tommy Gun era with violence and trumped-up style that didn't match. "The Monuments Men" feels the exact same way.

On paper, the parts are all here for something better. The cinematography, editing, costumes, and decadent production design all fit the necessary look, but are balanced by an Alexandre Desplat score that bounces like the film's tone from plucky to somber in jarring swings. Clooney is an accomplished filmmaker after efforts like "Good Night and Good Luck" and "The Ides of March," but he's better than this. His "Ocean's 11" trilogy chemistry with Damon works instantly, but it doesn't fit the movie. The ensemble behind them are those exact likable actors we want in a good film, but they are given too little to work with to make an impact beyond their reputations.

If "The Monuments Men" had went straight serious to really honor this war effort story, those involved all have the chops to deliver an affecting epic. If it had went the lighthearted route, this same cast and crew could nail that crowd-pleaser too with equal room for success. Either route needed more dedication and more time to succeed. I like the notion other critics have brought up, including my frequent foil and collaborator Tim Day of "Day at the Movies," that this subject matter and story would fit better as a cable mini-series, in either tone, even if that's already been done to some degree with "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific." That kind of extended time gives either treatment room to breathe and develop its characters and story scope to suit the true history's importance.

"The Monuments Men" should have chosen an identity and not tried to bounce back and forth. Something went awry here. Judging by the film's sudden delay from an Oscar-friendly Christmas 2013 opening to its release in the dead season of February, the studio either tinkered it too much or knew they had a bit of a lemon on their hands. I can't call the film "unlikable," but it's not very good. Either way, this film can't hold a candle to its Oscar contender peers from 2013.

LESSON #1: EVERY PERSON'S CONTRIBUTION TO THE WAR EFFORT-- Most of this team of teachers, curators, artists, and suits were too old or unsuitable for the traditional fighting of World War II. This special task was their chance to contribute and use their skills to improve the war effort for their side. These men rightfully earned honor and respect as fellow veterans for risking their lives for this greater cause alongside their internal one.

LESSON #2: THE IMPORTANCE OF PRESERVING CULTURE-- In his plea to President Roosevelt, the character of Frank expounds on this lesson greatly. To paraphrase, the creative arts and achievements of one country, demographic, or generation are what define our overall human culture. It's a piece of what makes us not just civilized and advanced, but expressive and great. When pieces of that caliber, importance, and uniqueness are lost, culture is lost and it cannot be replaced.

LESSON #3: THE COLLATERAL CULTURAL DESTRUCTION THAT COMES WITH WAR-- During Frank's same mission speech and in later events of the film, we gain a sense of just how much of overall culture gets destroyed in a war on the scale of World War II. It may not look like much on the surface and art is in the eye of the beholder, but the passed on and irreplaceable cultural heritage that gets destroyed, intentionally or unintentionally, by bombs, bullets, fire, and etc. is a hurtful and measurable loss.

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