Finger Painting

The Monuments Men
(USA/Germany, 118 min.)
Dir. George Clooney, Writ. George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett.
Stokes (George Clooney) presents his case to President Roosevelt 
in Columbia Pictures' The Monuments Men. Photo by: Claudette Barius

There is, sadly, nothing monumental about George Clooney’s latest picture. The Monuments Men, Clooney’s fifth film as a director, is about as far off the mark of its potential as it can get. There’s enough grandeur in the material and enough talent in the cast and crew that The Monuments Men has the makings to be one of the best films of his career as a director. Instead, it’s his worst film.

The Monuments Men is a loose adaptation of the non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter) about an untold chapter of the Second World War. It’s a story about a group of soldiers—American, British, and French—that was tasked with going to the fields of battle to preserve elements of culture—paintings, sculptures, sacred places—so that some element of culture would survive amidst the bombed out ruins. It might seem a trivia affair to dodge a bullet to save a painting when soldiers and innocent civilians are dying everywhere, but the effort of the Monuments Men is essentially archival work gone commando. Preserve what we have today so that there’s something left for tomorrow and ensure that traces of a culture survive to defy the eradication of its people.

Edsel’s book is a highly readable and well-researched account of the efforts of the men who formed the Monuments Men and of the ordinary citizens who were unsung heroes of cultural preservation. It is, however, a thick overview of art history, so the book provides ample room for creative liberties in order to make the mission more dramatic and cinematic. Liberties Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov do take, but they aren’t for the better. This version of The Monuments Men is a muddled mess that neither does justice its subject nor offers something satisfying for its audience.

The Monuments Men, the movie, simplifies the efforts of the individuals within the unit and of the larger institutional scope that made this a rather great effort. The decision to make the unit presents itself as a slapdash affair whereas Edsel’s account of it—supported by documents and evidence—suggests that the effort to preserve cultural artefacts was actually a moderately well-coordinated idea between cultural bodies and academics following the attack on Pearl Harbour. There wasn’t much of a direct mission per se, but The Monuments Men essentially shows a group of bumbling men who are the antithesis of GI Joe playing treasure hunt. The film has no plot or purpose: it’s just a few meandering threads that loosely touch upon the group’s efforts to thwart Hitler’s cultural conquest.

The shapelessness of the film is a key disservice. It’s surprisingly boring, for one, to watch a talented cast of Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jan Dujardin, and Lord Grantham joke around and talk about art. The lack of complication in the film, however, makes it seem like the efforts of The Monuments Men were easy. The film more or less presents their participation as a quest of “X marks the spot”. They need a painting, they find a painting, and they walk in and get it. Some conflict, some Hollywoodized story arc might have made for a better film. It’s odd to advocate for the Argo-ization of history, but Argo (which Clooney and Heslov produced) offers solid entertainment and invites people to seek out the complete story because the most embellished theatrics of the affair leave little doubt that it is a piece of entertainment first and foremost, and a piece of historical record only tangentially at best.

By going for broad comedy, though, The Monuments Men ultimately does history a wrong. The easy laughs and broad strokes with which Clooney paints this art history pic suggest that the effort of the Monuments Men was not a serious one. The silly laughs, which often fall flat, trivialize the story by making it more about the buffoonish camaraderie between Bill Murray and Bob Balaban than about preserving the culture. One of the few scenes that actually work, though, sees Murray and Balaban venture stumble into Nazi territory Inglourious Basterds style and ferret out an art thief in the most humorous of circumstances. This one scene smartly puts the art hunt as the crux of the joke, rather than as a smoky setting for a few easy yuk yuks.

Similarly, The Monuments Men doesn’t quite do justice to the efforts of Rose Valland, the woman on whom Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone is based, who spied on the Nazis for years and reportedly rose from bring a thankless museum volunteer to key figure for protecting and finding stolen art. The film admittedly shows some efforts by opening on Claire spitting into a Nazi champagne glass, yet it also reduces the gravity of the work by making Claire more of an ambiguous love interest for Damon’s James Granger. The film acknowledges her participation, but downplays it. (Alternatively, by changing all the names of the figures in Edsel's book, The Monuments Men doesn't directly dramatized the stories that inspired it.) This underdeveloped thread glosses over the work undertaken in tagging and tracking the art stolen by the Nazis, and it just doesn’t play out with credibility as Claire hands over years’ of work to further the cause. Blanchett, however, might be the one member of the cast to create a significant emotional investment in her character's attachment to the art, which gives the viewer some sense of the weight that Claire and other civilians in the art world were carrying. Some of the best scenes of the film appear in this storyline, like when Granger and Claire find themselves returning a painting to a looted and graffitied home, standing in an empty but strikingly lit flat, but The Monuments Men never really gets a handle on connecting the significance of the story with the cinematic element of it. It’s a tonally uneven film for a filmmaker who has packed a range of material and style more successfully in other projects.

The story seems silly from beginning to end, even (or especially) when Clooney’s Frank stokes lectures on the significance of the Monuments Men in hackneyed voiceover. The Monuments Men frames the story within a lecture Stokes delivers to FDR that outlines the valour of the men with some grossly on-the-nose observations and insights. Clooney delivers the words with the same leap for pathos that made such voiceover extremely affective in The Descendants (one can’t mistake the influence of Alexander Payne within this aspect of the script), but The Monuments Men is all an act of telling, rather than of showing. It feels extremely base and middlebrow for a film that pays homage to higher culture.  

A grandiose score by Alexandre Desplat feels as if it belongs in another movie, while none of the performers ever really seems to have a handle on the wayward tone of Clooney’s direction. The Monuments Men has a beat and energy that ring of cartoonishness along with a whiff of historical revisionism that never works. It’s as if everyone seems to sense that this is a story worth telling, but nobody knows how to tell it. The Monuments Men is a portrait of Michelangelo done as finger painting.  

Rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Monuments Men opens in wide release February 7.