The Monuments Men

UK Release Date 14th February 2014
Director George Clooney
Starring Clooney, Damon, Blanchet
Runtime 118 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 24th February 2014

Based on a true story historical dramas are tricky. Stray too far from the source and you’re in danger of besmirching the memory of the people involved. Stay to loyal to the material and you risk trying to cram too much into a movie shaped box. How has the ever charming George Clooney managed with this fine line?

The Monuments Men is based on a group of Allied soldiers who were tasked with protecting art as part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives programme during the latter parts of World War II. The movie’s historical accuracy as ever with these things is suspect and largely irrelevant by this point so I’ll shelve that analysis, though if you are interested in more information on that, check Dr Nigel Pollard’s review here.

We pick up with George explaining in earnest to his president that art must be protected from the either being destroyed by retreating Nazis forces (boo-hiss) or swiped by compensation crazy Ruskies (boo-hiss again). The only way this can be achieved is if an international team is put together by George to dash over the channel and 1 - persuade the officers on the ground to not bomb everything in sight and 2 - liberate the art and return it to its owners before the Russians arrive. George then does a quick whizz around collecting his picks in true Ocean’s Eleven style and packs them off to a training camp. Obviously being arty type people, training is light and they are soon split up and despatched to various parts of variously occupied France, Belgium and of course the Fatherland.

Clooney’s Frank Stokes is joined by restoration expert James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray - an architect), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) for the Americans and Hugh Bonneville’s Donald Jeffies (English) and Jean Dujardin’s Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont. Not to be cynical or spoil anything, but can you guess who survives yet? Granger is despatched to newly free Paris where he finds Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), an art curator in clink because she is suspected of collaborating with the Germans. Whilst the others are off out in the field, Granger’s job is to crack Simone and get to the valuable information she may be hiding because she no longer trusts anybody.

As always, let’s go with the good first. Clooney’s movie looks fantastic (as you’d imagine) and although it plays loose with history, it is at pains to be as reverential of its subjects as possible. Which may well be to its detriment. Beyond that, it’s actually quite hard to come up with many positives, which is a shame for a movie that isn’t actually that bad. It’s just not really that good. Of the actors, Cate Blanchett comes out a country-mile ahead of the remainder of the cast, her’s being the only performance that doesn’t feel like it's been telegraphed in. Her Simone is arguably the most interesting character anyway, at least given the character information that we have. Having to sit and watch as the Nazis officers plunder the art she has spent her life curating without the power to stop it is heartbreaking and you can understand her reticence when Granger arrives. Sadly, the relationship with Granger is lost in amongst the manic back and forth of the other characters.

Clooney slimmed down the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives personnel list in order to concentrate on a smaller group which was wise but he then splits up the group repeatedly in order to cover ground across Europe. This leads to a very fragmented story where we’re constantly trying to remember who is where, in which country and why. This fragmentation is matched by a constant unevenness in the script and tone of the movie. The music suggests that this wants to be a Great Escape style caper where the antics of the main characters sit comfortably alongside the horrors of war. Unfortunately, it manages none of the balance of that film, instead veering from something akin to Indian Jones to long speeches over a radio on the horrors of what has happened. You can’t help but feel that at some point a decision should have been made over whether this was a good old fashioned caper movie or a faithfully historical one. In the end it never quite manages either.

The Monuments Men is a movie that desperately wants to respect its source but doesn’t quite have the conviction or the wit to pull it off (and unnecessarily Americanises the MFAA). It’s an action film with barely any action, a comedy caper without any real gags and a historical film lacking real authenticity. Which probably makes it sound a whole lot worse than it is but considering the spectacular array of talent on show, I think we should expect better. Concentrating on just one element of the work the MFAA did maybe would have allowed for some proper character development but as it is, there are too many characters spread too thinly.

Check out the trailer here.

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