ADMIRABLE FAILURES: The Monuments Men (2014)

The Monuments Men (Germany/ USA, 2014)
Directed by George Clooney
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman

Ever since the credit crunch broke six years ago, there have been clarion calls from the artistic community in Britain about the need to preserve funding for the arts. Social media has been awash in recent times with 'I Value The Arts' twibbons and Winston Churchill's widely misquoted line. Contrary to popular belief, he did not say "then what are we fighting for?" when asked to cut the arts to support the war, but instead advised that paintings and other priceless works should be buried in caves.
All of which brings us to The Monuments Men, a film set in World War II in which the arts are no longer seen as a priority. The film repeatedly proclaims the importance of preserving and celebrating Western art and culture, arguing like contemporary campaigners that they reflect our humanity, our creativity and our capacity for good. Ultimately the film is a flimsy, stuffy affair with none of the current campaigns' dynamism, but it is still enjoyable enough to pass the time.
The big problem facing The Monuments Men, as so often in war dramas, is one of tone. It can't decide whether it wants to be a properly dramatic war film like A Bridge Too Far, full of good, honest men doing good, honest things, or a caper film like Ocean's Eleven or to some extent Inglourious Basterds, playing faster and looser with the truth. Only Soldier of Orange manages to somehow balance the two, and this falls far short of Paul Verhoeven's film.
Much of the explanation for this lies with the director; in so many ways, George Clooney is no Paul Verhoeven. He's not a bad director, insofar as he knows how to assemble a shot and light a scene in an appealing way. And there's no denying the admirable intentions behind his work, as previously demonstrated in Good Night and Good Luck. The problem is that his passion for an idea or subject matter comes across in a heavy-handed way.
Clooney's biggest fault as a director is constantly drawing attention to the message he is delivering, rather than letting the drama speak for itself. In Good Night and Good Luck, he did this by including stock footage of the real Joseph McCarthy ranting about communism. If Clooney were so confident that his film would work as a paean to 'proper' journalism and common sense, he would not have felt the need to have this footage of McCarthy to constantly remind us who the bad guy is.
It's much the same story with The Monuments Men, which gives us a compelling thesis and then somewhat squanders it through the kind of didactic scripting that would make Oliver Stone proud. The basic idea is a very interesting one, namely that the artistic values of a culture or nation must not be sacrificed for the sake of short-term political or military gain. But the idea is conveyed less through character development than through characters making speeches about it, with said speeches often interrupting the enjoyable action.
The Monuments Men explores an interesting phase of World War II, namely when it became a question of 'when' Germany would surrender, rather than 'if'. With the goal of their united campaign in sight, the different Allied nations were already looking ahead towards the potential fall-out of the surrender. There was a big race to be the first to reach Berlin, which through a series of unfortunate events eventually led to the Cold War. Arguably military leaders were more ruthless in this period than at any other period during the war, as epitomised by Hitler's own Nero Decree.
Seen through this prism, the film is a document of the nobler side of Man's nature in extremis. While it's sympathetic towards the ends of the Allies, it challenges the means by which Germany is being defeated. Clooney's men are seen to be fighting for a higher cause amongst the short-term barbarism of the field commanders. Matt Damon's character spends much of his time trying to challenge America's image as a careless conqueror, an image that extends from its army to its art collectors.
But again, there's a problem. While it is refreshing to have a bunch of characters who are not cynical in nature or in action, they are not written well enough to make them feel like anything more then vessels for speeches. Aside from Damon's relationship with Cate Blanchett and the tragic fates of Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin, it is very difficult to tell the characters apart. Blanchett herself is somewhat off the boil, with her French accent comically slipping on more than one occasion.
As a result, it becomes difficult to enjoy The Monuments Men as anything more than an old-school romp like The Dirty Dozen, in which a lot of famous people run around stiffing Nazis and Russians. There is a certain amount of pleasure to be wrought out of John Goodman getting his gun off - just look at his performance in The Big Lebowski. And as a film about older men being put in combat situations, it's a damn sight funnier and more entertaining than The Expendables.
The film also boasts better cinematography than many of the old-school romps that it eventually resembles. Phedon Papamichael is best known for his work with Alexander Payne on Sideways and Nebraska, but he also has form in period works, having lensed the remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Walk The Line. Some of the exterior shots are exquisite, such as the wide shot of the abandoned castle or the field in which Goodman and Dujardin are ambushed.
Credit should also go to the props department for recreating all the masterpieces that are referenced, including the joint MacGuffins of the Van Eyck altarpiece and Michelangelo's Madonna and Child. Often in war films there is so much collatoral damage that the artistry of a particular building or object doesn't seem to matter, but here we are given the chance to appreciate the craft on offer. The scene inside the castle, featuring all the different sculptures, is one of the highlights in this regard.
Ultimately, however, there is only so much that visuals and humour can do to keep a story going. The speechifying nature of the characters reflects the fact that the narrative keeps needing a shot in the arm, being unfocussed and needlessly meandering as it follows the different groups of characters. Like Nixon before it, it is a film of enjoyable moments which struggles to connect them either convincingly or compellingly.
The Monuments Men is an admirable failure from Clooney which comes to us with the best intentions and falls well short of expectations. Clooney's right-on credentials aren't in doubt, and as a modern-day take on old-school war films, it's reasonably entertaining. But its lack of character depth, coupled with the odd bad performance, prevent it from being anything more than forgettable fun. You won't rush to destroy it afterwards, but there won't be much call for preserving it either. 


NEXT REVIEW: Ghostbusters (1984)