With a top-notch cast of leading men and woman (oh, to be her on the set), the best character actors in the business, a terrific score and a very compelling story, “The Monuments Men” can’t be a complete failure…and it’s not. But it’s not as good as one might expect. Directed by George Clooney with screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, “The Monuments Men,” is the little-known, but true story of the attempted rescue at the end of WWII, of art stolen by the Nazis during the War, with the goal of returning the art to their respective owners.
Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes, is the driving force behind the mission, who, under the direction of FDR, assembles a team called the Monuments Men to go to Europe and track down the stolen art. The men are art historians, architects and artists, all pretty much past their fighting prime, but happy and eager to serve. When they get to Europe they find that not only are they trying to recover the stolen art, but they are faced with what has been called the “Nero Decree”—in which Hitler ordered that if Germany fell, among other things, “All military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed.” This decree included the destruction of the stolen art. In addition, Stokes’ team learns that the Russians are keeping whatever art they discover. Thus, there is a sense of urgency to find and protect as much art as they can, including art known to be housed in churches across Europe, saving them from damage during air raids.
All of this sounds like the basis for a terrific film. The problem with “The Monuments Men” is it that it suffers from a wealth of possibilities. Is it a caper/heist film…a comedy…or an action flick? “Monuments Men” really doesn’t know what it wants to be and tries to be all things to all people and ultimately falls short on all levels…save for the acting. All of the actors are very good…we just don’t get enough of each…to care very much about them.
As all the men go through basic training, your first thought is, “oh, no, will this be “Stripes” all over again?” Funny as that film was, fear, not. That doesn’t happen and the film quickly moves on. “The Monuments Men” pairs the characters and follows their stories, with the cast coming together near the film’s conclusion. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban work surprisingly well together as the film’s “odd couple” and most of the film’s humor comes from their interactions. John Goodman works with Jean Dujardin and the two have an easy-going chemistry. Hugh Bonneville’s character is a tortured soul struggling with alcoholism, who views his service as a shot at redemption. Finally, Matt Damon spends most of his time in France, working with a museum librarian, portrayed by Cate Blanchett, who is helping the Resistance.
What Clooney does capture perfectly are the details of the era and some of those details are horrific. T’hose gruesome details remind you of the war’s horrors. Additionally, the hair, clothing and most especially Alexandre Desplat’s score, couldn’t be better and give the film a very genuine feel.
The real Monuments Men recovered over five million pieces of art as well as a fortune in gold. It’s a story worth telling, but “The Monuments Men” doesn’t do the men justice. This might be one time that the subject is just too big for a movie and might have better served as an HBO series.