A not-so-monumental achievement
Sending untrained men into the battlefield for the sake of retrieving priceless artwork seems absurd, so much so that if The Monuments Men wasn’t a true story, it’d be easy to say Hollywood was indulging its imagination once again.
George Clooney dons his director’s hat once again in this ode to World War II “men on a mission” films from yesteryear — it joins the ranks of The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, dramatizing a story few may have heard of.
Clooney and frequent producing partner Grant Heslov may be remembered as the team who, in addition to Ben Affleck, produced last year’s Best Picture winner Argo, yet another true story. Needless to say, they have a penchant for bringing fantastic real-life stories to the silver screen.
The actual Monuments Men weren’t soldiers at all; rather they were art historians, museum curators and architects tasked with saving famous paintings and sculptures from destruction at the hands of the Nazis toward the end of WWII, yet these untrained experts were thrown into war-torn cities all the same.
Clooney plays Lieutenant Frank Stokes, the man responsible for organizing the titular group of reluctant heroes, recruiting Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon), Sergeant Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Private Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Major Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) to round out the crew.
The cast is paired off into groups, and the film frequently bounces between them all, traversing almost the entirety of Europe. Murray and Balaban play off of each other well with some of the funnier lines in the film, and Clooney and Damon are dependable as usual.
But perhaps the real standouts are Goodman and Dujardin, who form more of a bond compared to any of the others, though such issues reside in the script.
No single character is given ample screentime, as the film either moves incredibly slowly or speeds through seemingly important moments of characterization, yet everything shown works well enough due to the actors’ commitment.
Though the film never reaches grandiose heights, moving from one slight set piece to another (including one scene amidst The Battle of the Bulge that never amounts to anything, making its subtitled entrance all the more confounding), it excels in smaller, more humane moments.
Speeches around a campfire come off as overly sentimental instead of the intended source of inspiration, yet Clooney finds a way to make them work, much like the rest of the film.
Clooney made mundane happenings in Good Night, and Good Luck enthralling, and he does as well a job as anyone could with this material.
Saving artwork can only be so exciting since these men were not involved in extravagant shootouts or the other more action-packed goings-on of war.
Some could complain that the film passes over important historical moments, overlooking iconic events from the war, but there are plenty of other films that have recreated such moments.
This film is more concerned with paying respect to the men who haven’t garnered the same admiration, whose lives were risked for the sake of preserving culture.
With a cast and subject matter that promised more, The Monuments Men will be perceived as a monumentally disappointing bore to many, following a delay from its scheduled December 2013 release.
The wait may have done it more harm than good, but how can one not be entertained by actors of this caliber, regardless of how mundane all the proceedings may seem.
Watching some of today’s most appealing actors appear in the same film, one where they’re allowed to crack wry jokes and have some fun, will never be an overtly bad thing, no matter how self-important or pretentious the end result may seem.
The Monuments Men may never top best-of lists, but it’s one of the more entertaining films that audiences will see this early in the year.