Monday, February 16, 2015

The Monuments Men (2014)

Director: George Clooney                               Writer: Grant Heslov
Film Score: Alexandre Desplat                       Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett

One of the great taglines in movie criticism was when this film was first released and critic David Edelstein called it “The Dainty Dozen.” While incredibly humorous in its own right, the way the comparisons play out for George Clooney’s The Monuments Men with Robert Aldrich’s Vietnam era classic The Dirty Dozen also make it instructively appropriate. Aldrich’s World War II film was about convicted soldiers set to be executed but given a second chance to die in battle. Clooney’s World War II nostalgia piece is about over-the-hill art experts volunteering to go into Europe after the Normandy invasion to rescue the artworks the Nazi’s were stealing wholesale to take back to Germany. But where Aldrich managed to wring a lot of humor from serious situations, Clooney’s attempt a milking drama from a comedic premise is much less successful. At two and a half hours, Aldrich’s film gave the audience time to get to know the men and identify with them so that their deaths were meaningful. But even at two hours, it seems that we barely get to know Clooney’s men in a way that pushes past their considerable onscreen personas. It’s too bad, because it is a unique and mostly unknown chapter in World War II history that deserved much better.

The story is based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Brett Witter about the allied attempt to, at first, protect precious buildings and museums from being destroyed during the Allied advance, but eventually became about finding stolen art and retrieving it from the Nazis. George Clooney is the American art historian who initially goes to Roosevelt to tell him of the dire situation concerning European art at the time. But Roosevelt, more concerned with winning the war than rescuing art, says that if Clooney wants to take charge of the mission personally, then he’ll okay it. To help him, Clooney enlists another of his colleagues, Matt Damon, and the two of them put together a team of artists, historians, and architects to go into France after D-Day and save this art from Nazi destruction during their retreat, or Allied destruction on their way into Germany. The three other Americans are Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Bob Balban, and they are joined by British scholar Hugh Bonneville and French resistance fighter Jean Dujardin. A subplot in Paris involves a museum being run by Nazi military man Justus von Dohnányi as a staging ground for the looting of the West, which involves regular visits from Herman Goering who picks out personal treasures to be sent back for his private collection, and those to be sent to Hitler personally. The secretary of the museum, however, is Kate Blanchett who has kept a meticulous diary of every piece of art being moved through the museum.

The Monuments Men, as Clooney has dubbed them, go through a truncated basic training, and then are shipped out to Normandy. There they come up against massive resistance from commanders who absolutely refuse to avoid bombing certain buildings. Soon, however, the team discovers that most of the art has been stolen anyway, and their mission shifts from protecting the art, to discovering where the Nazis have hidden it. Matt Damon attempts to get information from Cate Blanchett, but she is curiously unwilling to help him, assuming that they will simply steal it from the Nazis and take it back to the U.S. The team then splits up, following rumors and conversation between captured prisoners to help them track down the treasure. It’s clear where Clooney and screenwriter Grant Heslov were going with the story. It’s a fish out of water tale with elderly art experts dressed in uniforms, and he went with established comedic actors to underpin the obvious comedic overtones of the film, including the relationship that he had with Damon in the Ocean’s films. Ultimately, however, this actually seems to work against the film. Having older dramatic actors might have been the better move, allowing the natural humor in the situations to stand on its own. As it is, the combined weight of the comedic personas the principals bring to the picture tend to bog the whole thing down.

The biggest flaw in the picture, though, is the pathos that Clooney so obviously reaches for, when the screenplay hasn’t really earned it for him. A director like Steven Spielberg might have been able to earn it, but with so little time or substance in which to be invested in the characters, it rings hollow here. When Bill Murray gets a Christmas recording from home, it’s as though he’s been fighting for years--something most of the Allied soldiers had been--when he’s only been in Europe for a couple of weeks, a borderline insult to the rest of the soldiers. Likewise, Hugh Bonneville’s obsession with a sculpture, something that becomes the basis for most of the pathos in the rest of the film, isn’t sufficiently fleshed out and fails to unify the second half of the film in the way it was intended. The true moments of soul-sinking despair are actually for the works of art themselves. While the end of the film rightfully celebrates how much was saved, the audience could have done with one last jab at the Nazis by estimating how many works of priceless art were lost forever because they violated Hitler’s personal lack of taste or because they didn’t have the time to remove them. Still, the acting is good, as would be expected from this veteran cast. Clooney’s direction is serviceable, though little else, and it’s to his credit that despite the flaws it is still a very watchable film. The Monuments Men, while not essential viewing, is still an important story that deserves telling and has its entertaining moments along the way.

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