Movie Review: The Monuments Men (2014)
It’s a surprisingly limp movie.
“The Monuments Men” is based upon a non-fiction book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter whose subtitle is more thrilling than anything in the film: “Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” Wow, cool! Except it isn’t. In the movie, I mean.
The book chronicles the exploits of 345 men and women from various countries who worked together to preserve the great art of Europe from Nazi greed and treachery. In the movie, these 345 are understandably pared down to seven. But were there no better stories to tell from the 345? The men in the movie seem disconnected from each other and from any kind of tension except a trumped-up kind at the end. I.e., Will they get to this-or-that mine before the Nazis, who want to destroy all the great art they collected? Will they get there before the Russians, who want the art as reparations for 20 million lost? And will they find the one piece of art, the Bruges Madonna and Child, that suddenly means so much?
Answer: generally yes, yes, and yes.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It’s a good seven, by the way. Every time one of them first showed up I smiled. Hey, Bill Murray! And Bob Balaban! Mon dieu, Jean Dujardin! Ah, good ol’ John Goodman. Then I stopped smiling. Because nothing interesting happened.
Richard Campbell (Murray) and Preston Savitz (Balaban) apparently don’t like each other. Why? Who knows? But they’re partnered up and they survive an encounter with a German youth with a gun. Later there’s a scene where they get packages from home. Savitz’s includes cheese and crackers; Campbell’s includes a phonograph his wife made and sent him. But where can he play it? He’s in the shower when Savitz plays it over the camp loudspeaker. It’s his wife talking, the kids talking, then the wife singing a very good rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But it’s like a not-bad scene from a not-bad episode of “M*A*S*H.” It has meaning only within our cultural memory. It pushes those buttons.
Garfield (Goodman) and Clermont (Dujardin) are also teamed. They, too, survive an encounter with a German youth with a gun. It’s a sniper, and Clermont storms the building only to find the sniper is, you know, 10. Again: meaning via cultural memory. Again: we’ve seen this movie before.
Meanwhile, in possibly the dumbest plotline, James Granger (Matt Damon) parachutes into the south of France then makes his way north to Paris, where he encounters Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who was forced to act as secretary as the Nazis plundered a French museum. She’s brave enough in her encounters with her Nazi boss, Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi), staring down his gun as he fled a step ahead of the Allies; but once Jimmy Granger shows up she turns into a complete idiot. She sits on crucial information she has because she doesn’t trust Granger, the Americans, or the Metropolitan Museum of New York. She sticks with the Nazis. Really? Those are her only options at this point: the Nazis or the Met. And she goes with the Nazis. When she finally has evidence we’re on the up and up—months later, after Campbell and Savitz recover art from Stahl’s home and incarcerate him—she’s ready to help Granger. More, she’s ready to sleep with him. There’s sexual tension. Actually, no, not even that. There’s sexual awkwardness. There’s nothing sexy about it at all.
The Monuments Men are led by Frank Stokes (writer-director George Clooney), who plays his usual glib professional. He quickly realizes his mission is meant to fail, since he has little authority, and since the military men he’s dealing with would rather save a life than a work of art. This leads to many speeches, many voiceovers, on the value of art. But Stokes doesn’t have a story until one of his men, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”), travels to Bruges, Belgium, to rescue, among other works, Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. The Germans still occupy the town so he sneaks in against orders, confronts them attempting to steal the Madonna, and is shot and killed. Was it worth the life of this man to preserve this work of art? Stokes doesn’t know. But he knows he’s gonna get the Bruges Madonna back.
Thus the search, amid the hundreds of thousands of stolen works of art, for this one piece. And guess when they find it? After the Germans have surrendered and the Russians are coming, and the men have recovered all 12 panels of the Ghent altarpiece in a mine in Altaussee, Austria, and everyone’s saying, “Go! Go!” before the Russians arrive, Stokes, hoping beyond hope, spies, in a back corner, a tarpaulin ... and uncovers it .... and there it is. Holy shit. That’s what the others say anyway, Balaban and Goodman and Murray, when they see it. Holy shit. But we don’t. We knew it was there. Because we’ve seen this movie before.
Smearing the glue
“The Monuments Men” should’ve worked. It had the talent, it had the story, it just didn’t connect things. If it did, it did so clumsily, smearing the glue, making the connection obvious.
Maybe it should’ve focused on two or three of the men rather than seven? Maybe it shouldn’t have relied so much on the cinematic shorthand and the face recognition of its stars?
It wants to be a World War II movie, a “Greatest Generation” movie, when maybe it should’ve been about crazy, obsessed art historians. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who usually does no wrong (“Un Prophete,” “The Tree of Life,” “Rust and Bone”), even composed a jaunty little whistling tune, some combination of music from “The Great Escape” and “Bridge on the River Kwai”; but it, too, is unconnected to anything on the screen. It falls flat. It recalls, as the movie itself recalls, Orwell’s Republican missiles from “Homage to Catalonia,” which, instead of thrilling with their whizz and explosion, sounded “like nothing so much as a man riding along on a bicycle and whistling.”