The Monuments Men is a war film for art history majors, and could have been called “The Really Nice Half-Dozen.” It’s in the tradition of the war film that features a small group of men on a mission, but it is a curiously slack narrative, a patchwork of scenes that don’t build any momentum.
Directed by George Clooney, he also stars as an art historian who is aghast at what is happening to the great pieces of art that are either being obliterated by Allied bombs (“The Last Supper” was in a church that had three walls destroyed, the only one left standing the one that the painting was on) and stolen by the Nazis, so petitions the president to create a group of scholars turned soldiers tasked with protecting and retrieving and stolen art.
This is based on a true story, though the men in the group are fictionalized. I know nothing about it, but I’m pretty sure the true story was far more intriguing than the lackluster events portrayed here.
The members are shown being recruited in the opening credits. Matt Damon is the curator of medieval art at the Met. Bill Murray is an architect. John Goodman is a sculptor. Jean Dujardin is a French artist, and Hugh Bonneville is their point man in England (his specialty is unspoken). Bob Balaban rounds out the group, and I know he was based on Lincoln Kirstein, one of the founders of the New York City Ballet.
They are all either too old or to infirm to be actual soldiers, so we get a little comedy as they go through basic training, which is not very funny. Then the film gets going, as they criss cross Europe, trying to gain leads on stolen art or protect items that are sure to be targets for Hitler.
Here’s one of the big problems in the film: I had no sense of their mission. Sure, it’s easy to say that they were to retrieve stolen art, but when Clooney points at a map and says “You two go to Ghent,” it’s unclear what they’re supposed to do when they get there. Damon is sent to Paris, and there’s more comedy about his bad French, but why wouldn’t they send the Frenchmen? Damon ends up meeting Cate Blanchett, a French woman who reluctantly was employed by a Nazi art thief, and Damon persuades her to help, and they have some nice scenes together. But other than talk to Blanchett, what was Damon doing there, exactly?
Secondly, at very few times do we see their expert knowledge in action. Clooney looks at a painting and says, “That’s a Vermeer,” which I think anyone with a decent liberal arts education could have done. Instead they get into a few shootouts (two men die during the film) but I would have liked more showing their artistic talents. It’s like watching a Sherlock Holmes film without any deductions.
But beyond that, the film has no consistency of tone, and Clooney appears not to have any passion for the subject. Sure, there are many (too many) speeches about how art is important, which is nice to hear, but I just didn’t get the sense that Clooney, or his co-screenwriter and producer, Grant Heslov, had any defining purpose, other than it was a neat idea. It comes off as half-baked.
I am left wanting to learn more about the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program. It had many more members than six. Perhaps a good PBS documentary is in order.
My grade for The Monuments Men: C-.