[Review] - The Monuments Men

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
The Monuments Men falls squarely into the hole that so many "based on historical events" films do, which is that what happened, happened. Even by condensing events, amalgamating characters and fabricating drama, the end result can never not be that Germany surrenders, Hitler dies, and art will be recovered. The way to get around this narrative constricting dilemma is to make historical films about character rather than plot. To focus on the people that took part in such events, to understand how they dealt with things and how they accomplished their tasks, rather than the specifics of the task.

Which is where George Clooney's script and film really fall over. Because Monuments Men isn't about either. The characters are ill defined scene fillers, and two years worth of the second world war are glossed over with such speed and abandon that it barely feels as though they were in any danger at all. While the film posits a fascinating potential, it never achieves it, and ultimately feels hollow, bred more out of nostalgia than any specific desire to tell a story, plot or character based.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that were unnerved by the incredibly still horse in the barn scene.

The Monuments Men is trying to be a lot of things at once, and never succeeds at any of them. It wants to be a war film, without ever being ambitious enough to show the war (it specifically mentions that members of the unit would have to travel to, or slightly ahead of the front line). Nor is it successful at showing the after effects of the war. There is a lot of rubble, and Clooney's production team made good use of old newspaper clippings, but aside from a few furtive glances towards desperation, it never makes a statement about condition of people or place. It wants to be a comedy, and is incredibly unsuccessful at that, with some of the worst landing jokes I've seen in a film in a while (which is hard to tell if it was a problem with the script or the editing). It wants to be a drama, but never builds enough emotion to establish any drama. It wants to be a heist film, but is incapable of establishing any tension. It wants to be a high brow art film, but plays more like the guided audio tour in a museum.

The problems begin with the characters, which are completely undefined. It's a good thing that Clooney hired highly recognizable actors in the primary roles, because walking out I couldn't remember a single character name. That undermines the ability of the audience to associate for the characters. It also doesn't help that, aside from the drunken Englishman who did something heinous in the past, none of the characters have any sort of backstory or development. They each get dropped into the war with a specific area of expertise (which is never utilized) and exist in the same state for the entire film. There is no reason to care for these characters and no reason to empathize for their cause, when they are little else than Bill Murray or John Goodman. And because of the lack of establishment, when characters die (and it should be noted, those that do are the non-famous foreigners) there is no emotional impact. It's just that one of the persons who wasn't getting a lot of screen time might get some more.

Which is another major problem this film has: it's amazingly fragmented. The editing is rough at best, and that's a problem. But the script lacks any coherent structure. The first half of the film sees the group break into teams, each attempting to protect or recover a particular piece. And you'd think that in these pairings, the characters would come out, but these scenes are little more than vignettes that help to establish an inconsistent tone. Another side effect of this structure is that no one character comes forward as a primary character. You'd think that that role might fall to Clooney or Damon, but both disappear for large chunks of the film. So, it's a film full of supporting roles that aren't supporting anything. The characters that come out the best are those played by Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, because I'm sure by sheer chance, they end up with the two best scenes in the film (one involving care packages, and one involving a hiding SS officer). It's clear that there was an intention to have some character development, as Murray and Balaban have a fleeting Bugs Bunny and daffy sort of relationship, but it's so inconsistent, and grows out of no establishment, so most of it feels like empty attempts to get an easy laugh (and doesn't).

The second half of the movie feels more like what the entire movie should have been. Cate Blanchett's character is pointless right up until she starts being helpful (it comes off less as development than it did spite), which leads the Men on a direct treasure hunt against not only the retreating Nazis, but also the invading Russians. Clooney tries to cover as much history as possible, but for the benefits of a film narrative, he should have focused more on a dramatically tangible thread. He does try to add in an emotional motivation for his own character, in recovering the Madonna and Child, but it never seems like anything but forced interest. Even still, with the more focused second half, and the clustering of the cast which benefits everyone more than the team-ups did, it's still fragmented. The film jumps over time, cuts in awkward moments of slapstick humour or over wrought drama where it doesn't work. And most frustrating, despite Clooney's constant claims to the contrary, the job of the Monuments Men never seems hard. A few of them die, and Murray breaks a tooth, but there never seems to be a genuine threat to their task. Even the final act, which is meant to be a tooth and nail fight against time as the Russians bare down on them, is completely under effected. There is no tension. There is no clear and present danger. It all just seems too easy.

And I lay part of the blame on the soundtrack. The writing is simplistic, the editing is hacky and Clooney's acting remains his strongest talent. But the soundtrack is terrible. It's alternatively overbearing and ridiculously inappropriate. Too much of it makes the film seem like a cartoon, and in those scenes that require a subtle, gentle touch it's overlaid with a bombastic and peppy band tune. The whole film is orchestrated to the sounds of 1930's recruitment propaganda. It completely ruins whatever sort of mood Clooney was hoping for, but missed anyway.

As a comedy, this could have been a hit. As a drama, this could have really been something. As an Indiana-Jones-via-Clooney, this could have been a lot of fun. As a deeply introspective character study, this could have been moving. By trying to be all of those things, and not succeeding at any of them, it's an utterly forgettable film based on a story that should be remembered. Clooney just wasn't the guy who should have told it.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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