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'The Monuments Men': More history lesson than tribute to World War II heroes

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The Monuments Men

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Originally set for a cushy December release date, The Monuments Men was pegged by many awards prognosticators as one of 2013’s biggest Oscar contenders. After-all, it had the pedigree: A big name Academy Award-winning writer-director in George Clooney, a star-studded cast of previous winners and nominees, a World War II setting, and a fascinating untold true story. But then Paramount Pictures unexpectedly bumped the release date to a very Oscar-unfriendly date in February. Many took it as an obvious sign of tainted goods but Clooney was quick to counter that he simply needed more time.

Three months later, as the movie hits screens this week with slightly muted fanfare, many are wondering: was the movie tainted as they initially suspected or did Clooney just need more time. Moreover, was the move to February the right decision? The answers to those questions are a yes, yes and a resounding yes. Although the result isn’t quite the disaster on the level of say, The Counselor, it’s clear why Paramount decided to bump it. This is an earnest film stifled by a preachy and poorly structured script (written by Clooney and Grant Heslov) that never gains much narrative traction. What it lacks is suspense, tension and the sense of adventure – elements that movies about men on a mission sorely need.

This is especially disappointing considering the mission at hand is one teeming with cinematic potential. Established in 1943, the Monuments Men were a group – mostly comprised of art historians and museum curators – who were tasked with finding, saving and returning thousands of priceless works of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II. As the war came to a close, their mission became a race against the clock to find these works before the Nazis destroyed them or the Russians stole them.

Clooney plays Frank Stokes, the leader of the group, who recruits an A-team of art experts, played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban. After a quick bout of basic training, the platoon, and the film, splits up into four sub-plots: Clooney and a German-born American GI (Sam Epstein), Murray and Balaban, Goodman and Dujardin, and Damon and Cate Blanchett, a French art expert who holds the key to the location of the stolen art.

Although these pairings sound fun on paper, their narratives don’t amount to much as Clooney and Heslov never make the purpose of their respective missions clear. Moreover, Clooney and company seem to think that casting a bunch of big names is sufficient enough to cloak the film’s serious lack of defined characters. While some like Matt Damon and Hugh Bonneville may get some cute background stories, none of it is vital enough for us to give a damn about them. When some of them get injured or die, we feel nothing. What’s more, this is only accentuated by the script’s clunky structure which poorly alternates between the four sub-plots. By the time the four merge into one in its last act, it’s a too little, too late.

Despite the film’s many shortcomings, Clooney does manage to get it right in small moments. A scene where Murray’s character reacts emotionally to a Christmas carol recording sent to him by his children is very touching. A dinner date scene with Damon and Blanchett succeeds at being both romantic and sweet. And Clooney gives himself a pair of terrific monologues towards the end of the film. One of them, which addresses the question of whether saving a work of art is more valuable than the life of a man, seems to be the underlying theme of the film. But that too is barely touched upon until the final stretch of the film.

The Monuments Men isn’t an outright bad film. Clooney is too smart a filmmaker for that. It’s just a very disappointing one. I would say it’s an earnest and well-meaning homage to classic “men on a mission” World War II movies but that would be giving it too much credit. At best, it’s a history lesson. Like a history text book, it succeeds in telling us what these men did but fails at giving us an idea about who they were and what drove them to sacrifice their lives for art.

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