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Non-Review Review: The Monuments Men

If you tried to take an Indiana Jones film and turn it into a meditation on the scale and conflict of the Second World War, you would end up with The Monuments Men. That is to say, if you sucked all the fun out of it while trying to balance a pulpy tone with a more weighty reflection on the cultural responsibilities that came with winning the Second World War. The movie is just as tone deaf and ill-judged as that description seems to imply – having a lot of clever things to say, but never being quite sure how to say them.

There is a good film to be found in The Monuments Men, if one looks hard enough. One can imagine writer, director and actor George Clooney chipping away at the story trying to find that good movie, like one of those artists whose work was rescued by this band of merry men. You get a sense that Clooney can see the angel in here somewhere; he’s just not sure how to set it free.

The art of the chase...

The art of the chase…

The problem with The Monuments Men is that it’s a light-hearted comedy about subject matter that really doesn’t lend itself to this sort of storytelling. The movie is structured as one of those “unlikely heroes” war stories, with George Clooney’s Frank Stokes assembling a quirky bunch of oddballs to rescue priceless works of art from the Nazis in the twilight of the Second World War. The movie fits that formula to a “t.”

The group are assembled in the opening credits, and each identified by character traits and humanised through little moments scattered across the movie’s runtime. Each is an individual, and none of the group appear to be particularly competent when it comes to military operations. In fact, it’s stated and implied that most of the group had failed the army physical – there’s a reference to James Granger’s weak heart and Jean Claude Clermont’s poor eyesight.

"It's sort of like Ocean's Eleven... except with Nazis... and a lot more pretentious..."

“It’s sort of like Ocean’s Eleven… except with Nazis… and a lot more pretentious…”

The group traipse across war torn Europe having a number of episodic adventures along the way. And therein lies the movie’s biggest problem. It is possible to tell a quirky adventure set during the Second World War, despite the gravity of the event. The Indiana Jones trilogy are set in the build-up to the conflict. More recently, Captain America: The Winter Soldier had a lot of problems, but it fairly effectively managed to convert the conflict into a quirky story setting.

The problem is that The Monuments Men tries far too hard to balance quirky (and occasionally humourous) wartime adventures with meditations on the high cost of the conflict. So we get silly gags about how Bob Balaban’s Preston Savitz  is spoilt by packages from home and how Clermont and Walter Garfield were almost outgunned by a child, but these are set against pretentious moments like an encounter with a running horse in the middle of a deadly battle or the redemption of a troubled platoon member.

He loves it when a plan comes together...

He loves it when a plan comes together…

The Monuments Men can’t seem to settle on the right tone. It feels like something of an old-fashioned buddy comedy wartime adventure, but it also takes itself so incredibly seriously that it threatens to smother the audience. This is not to dispute the wartime heroism of Stokes and his band of art experts, but rather the jarring portrayal of those exploits. Stokes’ story is absolutely fascinating, opening all manner of important moral and philosophical issues.

“Are any of these pieces of art worth a human life?” President Truman asks Stokes at one point. It’s a very important question, but the movie brushes it aside too glibly with speeches about the importance of protecting culture and heritage. As Stokes, Clooney gets to fillibuster passionately about how vital and important these artefacts are, and how important it is to stop the Nazis from destroying them. However, the movie never really sells that to us.

Throwing the book at those war art criminals...

Throwing the book at those war art criminals…

There’s a wonderful moment at the start of the film where a serving officer refuses to accept orders from Stokes. His logic is clear. He refuses to write a letter home to the parents of one of his soldiers informing them that his superiors considered an inanimate object more important than their son’s life. The movie tries to laugh that off. “I think that went well,” Bill Murray’s Richard Campbell reflects after the chat. However, the charge is never properly answered.

These works of art are cultural and historically important. Allowing the Germans to wipe them out is allowing Hitler to wipe out huge tracts of history, but does Stokes have the right to say that a given piece of art is worth another person’s life? That’s a pretty heavy charge to level at anybody, and the film never feels like it earns the right to answer in the affirmative. There’s a lot of debate to be had, a lot of philosophical musing to consider, but the film is too busy playing to the quirks of the characters.

We salute you!

We salute you!

Consider the film’s presentation of the Russian army advancing from the East. Whatever about the Cold War tensions already brewing towards the end of the Second World War, this was an army that had fought the Nazis and incurred incredible costs in doing so. “They lost twenty million people,” Granger informs Stokes in one conversation. They are sweeping across Europe, claiming some of the spoils of war for themselves. Granger explicitly describes these claims as “reparations.”

This is a pretty complex moral and political conundrum. It’s a complex issue that merits debate and discussion. However, the film instead treats the advancing Russian army as stock villains. The commandant of the advancing Russian military force is introduced like a pulpy film villain – he’s shot from behind giving lots of firm orders, before we get a nice low-angle shot of him turning around looking staunch and evil. The movie even gives us a nice “good guys screw with the bad guys” sequence where the American troops ceding agreed territory to their Russian allies leave a taunting American flag as a gag.

The perfect frame...

The perfect frame…

This portrayal feels decidedly two-dimensional and generic. The film features a coda set in 1977, and it might be possible to excuse this sort of jingoistic “ha, ha! America’s better than Russia!” sentiment as part of the Cold War’s cultural stew, but we’re supposed to have moved a bit beyond this. There are extended sequences in The Monument Men dedicated to arguing that Americans aren’t the sort of entitled imperialist army that many Europeans take them to be. This is all undermined by the way the movie treats the Russians.

That’s just the most obviously tone-deaf sequence of the whole film. It’s also abysmally structured. It’s very episodic, often splitting the large cast to engage on their own scattered adventures around Europe. As such, it’s hard to care too much about any of them. The movie compounds this by grafting several larger arcing narratives on to the second half of the movie, making for a particularly disjointed experience.

Painting a grim picture...

Painting a grim picture…

We’re told that the Ghent Altarpiece (also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or The Lamb of God) is a vital Christian relic, but the movie has no interest in why it’s important. We’re just told about it at the start so there’s one particular macguffin for Stokes to spend the movie chasing. Similarly, for all the movie’s talk about the importance of this artwork to local culture and heritage, the Madonna of Bruges becomes a focal point of the team’s search for decidedly personal reasons.

It’s a shame, because the story is fascinating. The cast is absolutely wonderful. In particular, the movie wastes some rather inspired comic pairings – Bill Murray and Bob Balaban; Jean Dujardin and John Goodman – with some very generic storytelling and character work. It’s a shame that the movie isn’t better put together, and the attempts to impose standard narrative tropes on this fascinating true story dulls the impact of what really should be a thoughtful look at the Second World War from another angle.

Enemy mine...

Enemy mine…

The Monuments Men is far from a work of art.

4 Responses

  1. Good review. I agree this isn’t nearly as thoughtful as it needs to be.

  2. Nice you review this carefully and not positively. I had this feeling looking at the posters. I think this stems from actors with no literary background writing their own movies. It shows that they are not well read. In this case that they don’t know much art history either. A shame. I think Clooney could be a positive force in independent films that bridge the gap between block busters and low budget, bringing them into mainstream. It’s unfortunate that people can’t let go of their ego and instead put it behind someone else who can really do this sort of thing well.

    The movie reminds me of my visiting a training analyst for an appointment and in his office is a huge head of Freud sort of Rodin looking. It was situated between two posters of Klimpt and in my astonishment I asked him where he had gotten it. I knew I was looking at a fortune. He said he had been with the Allied troops going into Berlin at the end, had found it and brought it back. This has bothered me now for over 30 years. But at least it is being taken care of and is safe and highly regarded.

    • Yep, it’s a bit of an awkward film in that it wants to be seen as a heroic tale of America’s respect for the historical and cultural integrity of other nations, but bungles it so badly.


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