The Monuments Men. Where does it fall among that list? Read on.
It's mid-1943 and the tide of World War II is quickly turning to the Allies, the Axis retreating on almost all fronts. An American officer, Frank Stokes (George Clooney), with an art background is proposing a plan to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the tide turns, presenting an idea for a small squad of specialists and experts in art, architecture and history and dropping them into the war zone in France. Their goal is simple, try and save as much famous and historical art, statues, structures and buildings across Europe. Germany, the Third Reich and the Nazis -- led by Hitler and Goring -- have been stealing and stockpiling priceless pieces of art for years, more than that stealing hundreds and thousands of years of history and culture. Stokes gets his right-hand man, James Granger (Matt Damon), and goes to work assembling his small team. The war is definitely turning though, the Germany army retreating all along the front. Countless pieces of art, treasures and items of historical significance are at risk, the Germans having received an order from Hitler to destroy everything they can.
This story is a prime example of how powerful history can be. There are countless stories out there just waiting to be told. This WWII story with Clooney directing (and co-writing the script with Grant Heslov) is based off a true story and the book of the same name (check it out HERE by author Robert M. Edsel). The fact that this really happened -- the Germans hoarding history's treasures, the Allied effort to recover said treasures -- is pretty crazy in itself, a hugely interesting and entertaining premise. I loved the book, a window into a chapter of WWII that was almost completely forgotten by history until the last 20 years or so. It was fascinating and terrifying all at once, unlikely heroes in an unlikely situation. I was worried then when Clooney's film was pushed back from an original December 2013 release to a February 2014 release. Should I have been worried?
Unfortunately, yes. It's a good movie that entertained me. The truth is though with the story at hand, the real-life incidents, the flesh and blood people, it could have been a classic. A true classic, and it isn't. The positives are obvious. There is a throwback feel to the story reminiscent of so many good 1960s World War II movies. Clooney clearly has a ton of respect for his subject matter and rightfully so. What these Monuments Men accomplished in a live war zone is remarkable, and yes, there were casualties. For a cliffsnotes version of what the force/organization accomplished, read HERE. This is a movie interested in really illuminating what these men accomplished. They were soldiers, if not the classic idea of what a soldier is. The movie is gorgeous, filming on location in Germany adds a perfect sense of authenticity to the story. The score from Alexandre Desplat is okay, nothing too memorable, a little too adoring at times. There's a lot going for it but.....
There's also a lot of negative to mention. A couple hours after watching 'Monuments,' it's hard exactly to say why. The task in transitioning Edsel's book to a manageable film is daunting. We're talking almost double-digit characters traversing across Europe over a year-plus. The result in Clooney's 118-minute long film? A generally disjointed feel with no real unifying link to the characters and set pieces. Episodic is a more than apt description, one episode, one bit or routine bouncing to another as quick as it arrived. The early portions are rushed, characters introduced far too quickly. The middle portions drag as if the script doesn't know exactly how to get to where it wants to go. The finale definitely is the saving grace, the Monuments Men traveling deep into Germany to rescue extraordinary amounts of art. It's disappointing because I expected so much more. The drama is good but not great, wandering too much aimlessly, and most of the attempts at wry, subtle humor fall short.
The movie's savior and strongest attribute is the cast that almost makes up for the disappointing script. If Clooney is attached to a project, it instantly has cache for me. He's good, not great, leading the ensemble as Lt. Frank Stokes (based on George Stout), the creator of the Monuments Men. Damon has the more scene-stealing part as James Granger (based on James Rorimer), the art director at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. His subplot with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a volunteer who survived years in Paris in efforts to protect invaluable pieces of art, is a cool departure from the story, including a great scene where Claire (based on Rose Valland) reveals a huge secret to Granger. The rest of the Monument Men include Campbell (Bill Murray), an architect, Garfield (John Goodman), a sculptor, Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a French artist, Savitz (Bob Balaban), an art expert of sorts, Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), a disgraced Englishman, and Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a young soldier who grew up in Poland, now working as the group's translator.
While the formula is tweaked, the premise here at its heart is a 'men-on-a-mission' movie, Clooney's Stokes assembling a small group of specialists to help pull off an impossible mission. The formula is rushed too much to the point I never really felt I knew any of the characters. I felt like we were supposed to root for them because it was Bill Murray, because it was John Goodman, not because we get to learn anything about them as individuals. Like so much of portions of the movie, I came away disappointed with the characterization. The acting is uniformly good but cold for lack of a better description. Some parts work very well, especially Goodman and Dujardin teaming up as the group is split up to cover more ground. Murray and Balaban are the odd couple, almost constantly arguing, but overall, it's just more wasted potential.
I'm wavering here. This movie seemed like a gimme for me, a sure thing review at 3.5 or 4 stars, but it wasn't. Some moments work perfectly, like a Christmas montage as we see the war starting to wear on all the Monuments Men, a message from Murray's daughter playing on a phonograph. A late interrogation between Clooney's Stokes and an SS officer is foreboding and subtle at the same time. the last 30-40 minutes pick up the momentum, providing the movie's strongest moments. Getting there though can be a trial at times. Most of the issues can be chalked up to the script that falls short in so many ways. A disappointingly average film that should have been so, so much better.
The Monuments Men (2014): ** 1/2 /****