One of the more memorable scenes in film is the last moment from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, where the camera slowly pans up to reveal an entire warehouse of artifacts. Granted, this was a place of ‘secret things’, not necessarily artwork. However, that film did cover the fact that the World War II-era Nazis hoarded thousands of cultural artifacts from across the Eastern Hemisphere. They wanted it all for themselves- for if you rob a people of its’ culture, you rob them of their spirit, as the theory was. These are big ideas, ripe for extrapolation on-screen, either as a dead-serious drama, or as quasi-adventure film, a la Indiana Jones. “The Monuments Men”, however, never settles for one idea, and thus doesn’t have an identity. The result is a muddled, aimless enterprise of a film that combines a fantastic cast, then doesn’t do much with them.
I’ll declare myself a big fan of George Clooney, but his directorial efforts have brought about decidedly mixed results despite stellar casts before. ”Good Night, and Good Luck” is a very good film with a specific focus. “The Ides of March” seemed to exist simply to tell us what we already knew- politics are corrupt. The Chuck Barris biopic “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was also an unspectacular, yet star-studded shoulder-shrugger of a film. In other words, it’s hard to really get a grasp on how creatively talented Clooney is behind the camera. The only common thread I gather is that his films start with an inspired idea, and he simply presents it to us on-screen. Some just keep our attention longer than others.
“The Monuments Men” cannot keep its’ own attention for long, not even to enrich the main characters (real people, for which real facts exist to extrapolate on). The film wastes no time in gathering this apparently motley crew, in a sequence so rushed it reeks of a montage. We do know this to be true, however; there were, in fact, a group of middle-aged men that joined the Army in World War II in hopes of recovering stolen art. They were, as the film shows us, an unlikely group. They were indeed brave by definition for heading into war zones. They did, in fact, recover thousands upon thousands of pieces of art across Europe.
What else were they, however? Other than brief, obligatory mention of families back home, the film doesn’t provide much nuance or inspiration to any of these characters. That’s a crying shame when you consider the massive talents in the cast. Clooney? The affable ‘really cool guy’. Damon? Eminently likable. Murray? Capable of showcasing a broad range of abilities. Goodman? Everyone’s favorite ‘dad’ figure. Dujardin? Limited exposure to American audiences, but already an Oscar winner. The film asks us to care deeply about these men and what happens to them, but it clearly overestimates our zest for the actors themselves. So little time is spent with them as a group and exploring what made them tick, and it just doesn’t work. On top of that, what exactly did this magnificent conglomeration of actors bring to their roles? For all the fanfare about their grouping, it doesn’t seem to have brought the best work out of any of them.
An exception to that would be (big surprise) Cate Blanchett as a French woman forced to catalog the art Nazis were stealing from her own community. Not only is she important to the mission (and the film’s resolution), but her character’s longing to feel anything other than hatred for Nazi action lends this film a steely emotional grab it so desperately needed. I envisioned there could have been a different film centered around this Claire Simone- a woman forced to betray her beliefs, then forced to watch, then forced to catalogue all of her culture’s artistic heritage, then forced to smile about it.
As straightforward as it is, the story of “The Monuments Men” may have worked better in documentary form. That would’ve afforded whatever filmmaker took on the project a chance to show the individuals involved with the ‘Monuments Men’ mission- without associating our notions of these actors with them. There are multiple ideas with which to work in this film, but no strong, emotional connection is created with any of them. We’re not sure whether Clooney wants us to laugh at the myriad of personalities thrown together for a decidedly non-traditional mission, or be moved by the wretchedness of war and Nazi malfeasance. Even the most poignant moment in the film, taking place in an Allied camp at Christmas time, seems out-of-place and awkward in its’ silence. I wasn’t sure whether I should be laughing or crying. It’s precisely the type of confused reaction you might expect when you watch a film that has no idea what it wants to be.