The Monuments Men is a movie that tells the story of a group of passionate scholars, professors, architects and the like who dive headfirst into war-torn Europe in order to prevent invaluable pieces of historical art from being confiscated by the Nazis, but it is assembled by a group of veteran actors whose faces on the movie’s poster signify more substance and depth than there really is.
This isn’t to say the movie’s bad. It is good, in a war movie cum comedy kind of way. The content that Clooney, Damon, Goodman, Balaban, Murray, and Dujardin have to exercise spends a lot of time establishing the characters as soldiers who are not quite soldiers, and the result is meant to be funny. Most of this takes place in scenes that share no narrative link to the rest of the story. There is an extended scene that involves the Murray character and the Balaban character pacifying a tense German soldier with cigarettes. The incident is never mentioned or referred to again.
I am reminded of something I learnt in film school. When writing a screenplay — or any narrative for that matter — it is essential, as a rule of thumb, that every scene contribute to the progression of both the characters as well as the plot. If a scene serves no purpose, get rid of it. I say this not to find fault with The Monuments Men. Many movies have broken this rule, and they have succeeded. Perhaps what director George Clooney is aiming for with this movie is a lightness of spirit. Admirable, but misguided. Far too much time is given to scenes that don’t matter, to developments that play out when they’re needed and forgotten once the joke or tragedy has run its course.
The Monuments Men is made up of Frank Stokes (Clooney), James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). Their plan, as approved by the president, is to enter Europe as the war is dying down and locate over a million individual pieces of art, from paintings to sculptures. It is a dry premise. You’d imagine a bunch of middle-aged men huddled around a conference table mapping out possible locations. And then you’d imagine them walking around debris and crumbled houses in search of stranded frames. You’d imagine all this correctly. The Monuments Men, in spite of its masculine cast, would have served itself better had it been a documentary.
The screenplay by Clooney and long-time producing collaborator, Grant Heslov, trips over its own feet from time to time. As the characters lose their bearings, so do we. They split up to cover more ground. James Granger meets up with the French curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), and together they march over rubble and saunter into each other’s hearts. There’s a romance in there somewhere that shouldn’t be. The whole story is primed and ready to be exploited, but it seems unsure on how to tackle its subject matter, which demands more care and attention than Clooney or any of the actors care to give it.
I am an admirer of art. Always have been. I support what The Monuments Men did. They are the scavengers, determined to find the meat in a carcass that has long been stripped of flesh. If history and culture are lost, they say, they are lost forever. There is truth in this. The Last Supper cannot be replicated. The Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Pieta will never be painted or sculpted again. There are memories and a way of life buried within artwork. They elicit a time and a place. They reflect emotion and character, surroundings and skill. The most poignant part about this movie is not when a couple of the characters die; it’s when a couple of the characters lift empty Picasso frames from charred remains and it dawns on us that whatever used to be in those frames will never be seen again.
All The Monuments Men needs is a bit more clarity. A bit more focus. It needs to know what story it’s telling, and by whom. It also needs to determine its mood. Is it meant to be a serious historical film? Is it meant to be light-hearted? Is art the hero of this story, or are the men? The other parts are already in place. The actors share a strong bond. Blanchett is more French than Dujardin would care to admit. The production design works effectively in the background. The board is set. The pieces are moving. They just need to know where they’re moving to.
Best Moment | The entire scene in the German’s farmhouse.
Worst Moment | The numerous flat jokes.