It's common knowledge that Adolf Hitler wasn't just out to dominate the world, he had all sorts of insane personal agendas, most of which didn't become public knowledge until well after his death. The most consistent and most barbaric agenda that Hitler held to was the idea of genocide, the idea of wiping out an entire race of people. However, the Jewish community weren't the only victims to Hitler's madness, he also had his eyes set on confiscating the history of every country he invaded by taking their priceless works of art for himself.
But of course it is never that simple, and as the war came ever so closer to being over, Hitler issued an order to all of his troops who had been stealing and storing all of this artwork for his own personal use to destroy it all before it could ever be reclaimed. So it was then tasked to a select group of men, not soldiers, but just ordinary men in certain art fields of work to head to the front lines and not only hunt down all the stolen art, but also protect what art was still left standing which ranged from small statues to entire buildings. These men were commissioned to save the history of the very countries we sought to liberate and they were aptly named, The Monuments Men.
That premise sets the stage for what should have been an action/adventure filled thriller like no other before it. The fact that it is indeed a true story only strengthens the underlying story of these men who were thrown into battle to protect objects that nearly every other solider (from both sides) saw as inconsequential to a human life. But while George Clooney nails the history aspects of their story, he has a very difficult time nailing down a consistent tone for the film which jarringly bounces back and forth between light and fun to brief moments of hard hitting drama that doesn't mix the way it was likely intended.
There are plenty of good qualities to the film however, including but not limited to the very eclectic casting choices for the seven men who are "volunteered" for this dubious honor. John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Clooney himself all prove to be a very interesting clash of personalities and acting styles that really hammers home the idea that these men are the furthest thing from your typical soldier. When they eventually engage in any sort of conflict the results are often a far cry from the usual shooting gallery we have become associated with in our WW2 films, which as with most everything in the film is a mixed blessing.
That leads into another highlight of the film which is that it never succumbs to being just another war movie with conflicts thrown in just to up the action quota. Most of the time our seven men are on the hunt for the stolen treasure, which spans the entirety of the European countryside leading to them employing unusual tactics to locate their honey pot of priceless art. While the history side of the coin tells us that by the end of the war over 5 billion (yes, that's billion with a "B") pieces of art had been recovered, the film decidedly focuses on only a handful of well known pieces amongst the thousands that they eventually discover.
Those include the Madonna and Child bust, the Ghent Altarpiece and a self-portrait by Rembrandt. Of course there are plenty of other pieces that they investigate, search for and ultimately discover the fate of, but considering the vast number of items they search for and find (which ranges from a stash of gold to a number of strange items such as thousands of church bells), it often feels as though the film is glossing over what should in fact be the central focus. That is but the first chink in the armor for a film that has a very difficult time balancing out the horrors of war with this strangely whimsical tone that seems to pop up at all the wrong times.
The biggest culprit beyond simple editing choices and possibly a few script hiccups is the film's soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat which undermines much of the drama from moments that are clearly built to have an impact on us. More often than not a standoff or shootout with enemy soldiers is punctuated with this light and breezy piece of music that is supposed to give off a sense of fun, as if these guys are having a good time while being shot at. Now, it isn't impossible to find a balance between humor and horror in a war film, just look at classics like The Dirty Dozen or Kelly's Heroes, both films that found a way to instill some humor while always retaining the horrors of war.
Clooney just doesn't seem to either know which direction he wanted to head in or was trying to find that balance as well, but ultimately has the side effect of making the scenes that are supposed to be dramatic and hit us emotionally feel somewhat out of place and awkward. Likewise, when we start to see Hitler's orders carried out and see all this artwork being destroyed before us, there should be an emotional reaction in the audience when in fact there is none. This lack of drama is felt even more when the men discover barrels filled with gold teeth which are obviously from the Nazi death camps, but the weight of that horrible discovery feels somewhat diminished because moments later we have a funny scene with someone standing on a mine.
Lastly, and possibly the worst oversight of the entire film, is the lack of tension. As we watch these guys racing across the countryside to stop the destruction of all this priceless art, there wasn't a single moment that had my heart racing wondering if they would make it. Even with the introduction of an opposing Monuments team from Russia called The Trophy Brigade, whose job was to reclaim art for Russia to sell, that extra threat hardly ever becomes any sort of issue in the end. All the pieces were there, a great cast, a very interesting story that up until now had never been told and all set against the expansiveness of WW2, it just never comes together the way it should have.
But there is still some entertainment to be garnered from the film. In the end the cast really helps save the film and helps give us a reason to become invested in their journey despite the lack of tension or suspense. The film also works as a history lesson of sorts, especially with how it is bookended by presentations given to the President as to the state of the art recovery mission which graciously divulges copious amounts of information that wouldn't be out of place in a history classroom. If you are looking for an interesting, but decidedly lightweight movie with a great ensemble cast and don't mind being taught a little history, then The Monuments Men isn't without its merits, just don't go in looking for the next Saving Private Ryan and you should be alright.
While watching The Monuments Men, you will no doubt find enjoyment from the film, but there will likely be this consistent and nagging feeling that you should be more invested in what is going on than you really are. This feeling unfortunately never goes away and minutes after it ends the feeling only grows to the point of extreme indifference to it. Despite having a great, and important, story to tell and bringing together a fantastic cast, George Clooney's film isn't nearly as effective as it should have been.