George Clooney’s arty party can’t quite come together in tale of ‘The Monuments Men’ of World War II

February 8, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 8, 2014

A sequence in The Monuments Men captures the key problem with the new feature directed, co-written by and starring George Clooney.

As sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) are questioning a clergyman about the fate of historic artwork stolen by the Nazis, a sniper begins shooting at them. Garfield and Clermont comically argue about which of them will provide suppressive fire and which will attempt to infiltrate the structure where the gunman is located. After that matter is settled, Clermont races toward a gutted building as Garfield covers him.

Once the Frenchman is inside, his fate comes down to whether he can outfox — and outshoot — the sniper. Clermont advances to the second floor, hugs a door frame and pivots, rifle-muzzle-first, into the space that he thinks contains the shooter. It’s empty.

But the sniper is still in place somewhere nearby. A shaking Clermont surveys the scene and then rushes into the next room. There, he finds a boy of no more than 12 years of age outfitted in an immaculate black Nazi soldier’s uniform. The youngster yelps with fright and immediately drops his rifle. A moment later, all three characters are outside. As Clermont frog-marches the unnerved boy, he and Garfield tersely agree that they will never speak of the incident.

In the space of a few minutes, this segment caroms from mundane to dramatic to humorous and back to dramatic before ending on a humorous note. The appalling spectacle of a scared young boy attempting to kill in the name of Adolf Hitler is dismissed with the cinematic equivalent of a shrug and a wink.

The muddled tone of this sequence, alas, is indicative of the movie’s failure to get a handle on its overall approach. On the one hand, The Monuments Men is the jaunty comedic adventure of a handful of art scholars who traipse through Europe during the closing days of World War II in a quest to save priceless artwork that has been confiscated by the Nazis. But The Monuments Men is also the grim chronicle of a scattered band of unhealthy, maladjusted misfits who struggle to come to grips with the horrific injury and destruction that humans inflict on one another.

There is, of course, room for comedic grace notes in any dark drama. And a comedy can certainly accommodate a number of somber moments. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men, like a sailboat helmed by an experienced skipper with multiple personalities, too often veers suddenly from one tack to another. What should be a fascinating journey ends up being reduced to a fragmented collection of moments.

Clooney and fellow screenwriter Grant Heslov, working off a 2009 nonfiction book by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, waste little time assembling the eponymous task force led by Frank Stokes (Clooney). His right-hand man, and first on-screen recruit, is art historian James Granger (Matt Damon). They’re soon joined by Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), disgraced Englishman Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and the aforementioned Garfield and Clermont. The group is also assisted by Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a German-born Jew who moved to America at age 13 and is serving as a U.S. Army private.

(Although the reasons why Jeffries, Savitz and Clermont are qualified to identify great art are probably provided in the exposition, they slid past my notice, and they’re superfluous to the actual plot anyway.)

Almost as soon as the group is assembled, its members split up to try to find where the Nazis are storing the looted artwork. The movie’s most extensive subplot involves the married Granger’s chaste courtship of a Frenchwoman. Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) has been arrested for allegedly collaborating with Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi), the Nazi official charged with funneling art out of Paris. Simone’s cooperation might not only help the Monuments Men discover where the Germans are warehousing stolen sculptures and paintings; it could also help speed the return of the artwork to its rightful owners.

Frankly, it’s not entirely clear why Simone is reluctant to help Granger. But Blanchett inhabits the role beautifully, to the point where I literally did not recognize her and thought the actress to be French.

I’ll note here that not only does The Monuments Men fail the Bechdel test, it does so in rather spectacular fashion: I believe Simone is the only adult woman with on-screen dialogue in this film. I counted eight females in the cast, three of whom appear only as voices. That’s out of 59 credited roles that the Internet Movie Database lists for this film.

Well — but this is a war movie, so it’s understandable that the cast would skew heavily toward men. Or, to be honest, this is sort of a war movie. Stokes and company wade ashore on a Normandy beach some days or weeks after the front has been secured. Virtually all of the movie’s gunfire is implied rather than shown. There is one harrowing scene with a land mine, but no one is tortured, and the movie’s only interrogation scene mainly provides an opportunity for Stokes to speechify righteously, if a bit smugly, at an uncooperative Nazi officer.

So maybe it’s more apt to say that The Monuments Men is a treasure hunt story set in a war zone? Yes, that seems closer to the truth. Unfortunately, the movie can’t conjure up much suspense, or do much to engage viewers in the hunt: Either Simone will cooperate or she won’t; either the task force will salvage some stolen artwork or it won’t. The viewer watches passively, instead of trying to decipher clues.

Let’s regroup: Although Stokes’ team faces real jeopardy, and some are actually shot, this is sort of a war movie without much war and sort of a treasure hunt movie without much of a puzzle. Stokes himself never seems to contend with anything more dangerous than bureaucracy. The script introduces a race-against-time element at the end, as Germany surrenders and a rapacious Soviet officer swoops in to take peacetime possession of a newly discovered Nazi art cache, but this comes off more as an artificial narrative device than a real peril faced by the titular heroes.

The closest Stokes actually gets to combat comes around Christmas 1944, which finds most of the team holed up in a military camp as the Battle of the Bulge is fought nearby. While a homemade record plays “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (beautifully sung by Nora Sagal), Stokes and Epstein find a badly injured soldier and bring him to the camp hospital. The soldier is not named, and his face is barely shown; we never find out how he was injured or whether his sacrifice was worthwhile.

The scene is genuinely moving; heartbreaking, actually. (Mild spoilers follow.) The fact that this anonymous man’s death carries as much weight as those of two team members inadvertently serves to emphasize that The Monuments Men is very much about a sidebar to World War II. Stokes makes some moving speeches about the importance of art and culture, but it seems perfectly understandable that a handful of men were designated to salvage paintings, while multiple armies, navies and air forces were thrown into the battle against Nazi Germany.

One other thing about The Monuments Men: For a movie that’s ostensibly about art, there’s relatively little art in it. The Ghent Altarpiece is set up as a MacGuffin right from the very start of the film; later, Michelangelo’s so-called Bruges Madonna, from a Belgian church, emerges as a second MacGuffin, thanks to one characters brave but futile effort to safeguard it. Clooney mouths a few lines about why these should be viewed as cultural treasures, but the masterpieces seem mostly incidental to the proceedings at hand.

Yes, The Monuments Men has good moments — at various points, it is both fun and poignant. But the film is ultimately forgettable, due in part to its reluctance to commit to being one type of movie and in part to its inability to put the deeds of its characters in proper perspective.

If you’re in the mood for some not-too-taxing entertainment, this movie fits the bill. If you’re hoping for enlightenment, that’s another story. While The Monuments Men is about art, it fails to rise to the level of great art. 

One Response to “George Clooney’s arty party can’t quite come together in tale of ‘The Monuments Men’ of World War II”

  1. Francesca Maria Says:

    I am just watching a program on Sicilian TV called “Che Tempo Che Fa”. The guests will be George Clooney, Matt Damon and Jean Dujardin. They will be talking about this movie.

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