Even the real Monuments Men wouldn’t preserve The Monuments Men, an immeasurably insufferable piece of a filmmaking that does a complete disservice to the unsung heroes its depicting.
Inspired by true events and adapted from Robert M. Edsel’s novel of the same name, the film tells the story of seven American soldiers who were shipped off at the tail end of WWII with one task at hand: to rescue and return valuable pieces of art stolen by the Nazis. Spearheaded by Frank Stokes (George Clooney) and James Garner (Matt Damon), the platoon — made up of jovial characters played by John Goodman, Bill Murray and others — traverse all across Europe protecting art Hitler wishes to destroy. The primal conflict of the film is a serious one: if the Führer’s diabolical plan of artistic obliteration came to fruition, he would invariably erase our culture, and by extension, our history.
Through intimate spaces, Clooney has poignantly chronicled and navigated historical events in the past. From a morally murky campaign trail (The Ides of March) to an anti-McCarthyism fueled press room (Good Night, and Good Luck), the bonafide movie star has the capability to wring verisimilitude out of non-fiction settings. The Monuments Men, unfortunately, is a monumental misstep in the wrong direction. With its calculated schmaltz and laughably patriotic score by Alexandre Desplat, characters wander from Paris to Berlin without any sense of the looming danger.
Of course, screenwriting duo Grant Heslov and Clooney are not going for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Saving Private Ryan or Patton. This is not a film about the atrocities of WWII; but without stakes or tension, what exactly are the viewers supposed to care about? Laced with a narration that makes Paul Haggis’ Crash appear subtle, The Monuments Men relishes in spelling every single minute detail out. Its agreeable thesis — art is the backbone of society and worth risking one’s life over — is jammed down the viewer’s throat until it no longer contains a modicum of meaning. Nothing is left to the viewers imagination — something this film is severely lacking.
Worse is the movie’s ghastly episodic structure. In an attempt to tell all facets of the story, we receive a series of loosely connected scenes as each character branches off into their own uneventful subplot. While it’s admirable that The Monuments Men presents us all the Monuments Men, Clooney doesn’t possess the directorial acumen to tell a myriad of narratives concurrently. This results in sequences that flow in and out of each other (using amateurish dissolves and slow fades) without a lick of fluidity, wasting the talents of every brilliant performer on screen. Each character is ostensibly defined by their occupations. Cate Blanchett plays a Parisian curator, Murray an architect, Goodman a sculptor, Bob Balaban a historian. The list goes on. None of this information is either of particular interest or significance. Once these hammy introductions are made, the character’s preoccupations and past are completely abandoned.
As a filmmaker Clooney tends to be driven by political purpose and intellectual heft. Conversely, this project seems to be propelled by an underwritten script and vanity. Still, on the outset, Clooney’s fifth movie at the helm appears to be the type of genial, old-fashioned Hollywood fare you couldn’t dislike with any considerable amount of intensity. I suppose in that regard The Monuments Men does the unthinkable. With its weightless characters, jagged editing and aversion to intrigue, 2014 has received its first outright dullard, an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions.