by Kathie Smith
Europeans have been pillaging art since the colonial era, so by the time the 20th century rolled around with its various great wars, cultural possession as a weapon (and as a form of sadistic dominance) was a well-honed trade. World War II, however, ushered in not only a whole new level of ethnic arrogance, courtesy of the Nazis and the Empire of Japan, but also a much needed awareness in regards to cultural heritage and art ownership. The history of Adolf Hitler’s systematic efforts to loot and stockpile the fine art of occupied territories continues to unfold with research, discoveries, and the very complex issues of restitution. Standing on the front lines of this effort to protect architecture and recover stolen works while the war was still raging was the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program established in 1943 and employing a small subset of Allied service members and civilians—also known as the Monuments Men. In retrospect, the endeavors of these men and women seem heroic and selfless, but during the bitter final months of the war, saving art seemed a ludicrous consideration compared to the daily accounts of suffering and death.
Director: George Clooney
Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Barbara A. Hall
Writers: Robert M. Edsel (book), Brett Witter (book), George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban
US Theatrical Release: February 7, 2014
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
This fascinating material and all its intricacies seem like a gold mine for a movie of nearly any genre, but one thing is clear: it deserves far better than The Monuments Men, George Clooney’s flat-footed, cliché-ridden dramedy that attaches for more importance to silly star chemistry than any historical relevance or storytelling verve. Based on the book by Robert Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the movie plays like a half-hearted riff on Kelly’s Heroes (1970) which meanders in circles and offers little more than lip service in paying homage to the solidiers in the art-for-art’s-sake trenches.
Clooney, who directed, adapted and produced The Monuments Men, also casts himself in the lead as Lt. Frank Stokes, an art historian presented as a key figure in putting together a dream team of art scholars to trail Allied forces into Normandy and beyond. The team is more about the actors who play them—Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban—than the roles they play as loosely defined experts in the field. It’s hard not to think of Murray as a reluctant soldier in Stripes; Balaban, first shown standing behind a music podium, as the anal retentive composer in Waiting for Guffman; and Bonneville, only slightly removed from Downton Abbey, as a soldier getting the chance in WWII that he never had in WWI. This odd phalanx certainly has the promise of something unique based on charisma alone, but unfortunately they get pigeon-holed into milquetoast stereotypes: Clooney the inspiring patriarchal orator, Damon the aw-shucks all-American (paired with the stormy Belgian played by Cate Blanchett), and Murray and Balaban the antagonistic odd couple with a panache for one-liners. The script and its needless diversion into comedic skits and emotional subplots give the story and the actors very little room to move outside something that feels like an episodic sketch.
The trajectory of The Monuments Men, such as it is, follows this band of seven as they make their way into France looking for clues to where the Nazis have taken large caches of stolen art, finding only dead ends and, of course, tragedy, making their cause all the more vital. Their objectives become emblematized in the search for two pieces: Michelangelo’s marble sculpture Madonna and Child and Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, both monumental pillars of western civilization. But the simplistic routes depicted to solving the mysteries of the hidden treasure and discovering the Madonna and the Ghent might have you looking for the Scooby snacks. After searching (to no avail) in one of the towns rumored to harbor the art, the men stand over a map with key cities circled in an attempt to find the clue they are missing. The movie stops just short of allowing someone to snap his fingers and proclaim, “I’ve got it!”— but the result, à la cracking the code, is no less facile.
True stories served Clooney well in his films Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), but with The Monuments Men, that original dramatic spark is sadly no more than a sputter. His admirable inclinations to add a little humor to the history and to tap the innate shticks of his cast sadly fail to engage from one moment to the next. The low-hanging philosophical fruit of whether a painting or a sculpture is worth the loss of human lives gets a fair amount of reiteration but with the gravity of a feather. In contrast, John Frankenheimer’s The Train from 1964 ponders the same question with ratcheted thrill and melodrama, and Bonni Cohen’s didactic documentary The Rape of Europa rallies with facts, enabling you to broach the question yourself. The Monuments Men stacks its proverbial deck with the valuable principles of the program, but if you still don’t get it, Clooney’s Lt. Stokes is willing to just say it outright in his final report: the death of his comrade and friend was worth it. But this sincerity, including an epilogue starring Clooney’s father Nick, comes on a little too strong in a long line of inconsistent tenors, creating an awkward landing to an already very bumpy ride.