We’ve all had that one teacher who could make any subject interesting. Whether that be math, politics, science, or history, he or she can tell the best stories to liven things up for the class. The Monuments Men is not that teacher. It’s the other one — the one who recites the basic facts, adding in nothing exciting or interesting. That teacher makes you feel like you could have stayed home and looked up the information on Wikipedia. That is what I encourage you to do here: Stay home and look up the real story on Wikipedia. Here is a link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monuments,_Fine_Arts,_and_Archives_program
The film is about a group of individuals — architects, sculptors, composers, etc. — who are tasked by the Allied forces to go around Europe and (1) protect art that is in danger of being destroyed and (2) locate art that the Nazis have already stolen and return it to its rightful home. The group is led by George Stout (George Clooney, who also directed, produced, and wrote the screenplay), who soon divides the group into teams. Splitting up covers more ground, and it’s not like they’re going into combat, anyway.
A man named James (Matt Damon) is sent to Paris to rendezvous with a spy named Rose (Cate Blanchett) who is reluctant to give any information because she believes the Americans will take the art for themselves like the Russians. Richard (Bill Murray) and Preston (Bob Balaban) go to one small town, Walter (John Goodman) and Jean-Claude (Jean Dujardin) go to another, while Donald Jeffries heads to Bruges. The film takes place over a couple of years near the tail end of World War II, and the group gets together and splits up a couple of times. This is just where they start.
From here, they basically do exactly what they set out to do. What? Where you expecting something different? People don’t often make films about real-life failures. As soon as the words “based on a true story” pop up you can essentially predict that while there might be some difficulties, the main goals will be accomplished. How often does the opposite happen? I’d like a list.
That is an issue which can easily be overcome. The film can become about the journey, not the destination. But The Monuments Men is missing just about everything that’s needed for that strategy to work. It doesn’t have deep or interesting characters, it’s not emotionally, narratively, or intellectually compelling. It lacks almost any attempt to generate suspense. It has no idea what tone to strike so it tries to hit all of them without much success at being anything. It can be shown in history classes as a way to show students that, yes, this happened, but not much else can be done with it.
The characters are perhaps the most damaging problem. They all come from various backgrounds, reminding us of heist movies. They have quirks, personalities, and one even has a tragic back story that’s hinted about but never revealed. None of this seems to matter. Two of them die over the course of the film and it doesn’t matter because they’re so shallow. The Bill Murray and John Goodman characters are funny. The Bob Balaban character is small. The Matt Damon character speaks poor French. This is the extent to which we get to know these characters. You’d get as much satisfaction reading about them on Wikipedia (it seems at least a couple of them did really exist).
There’s also an issue with tone. This is a war film, albeit set primarily after the Allies had more or less won WWII. It tries to balance suspense, comedy, and drama, and fails at all three. There’s one decent scene of suspense, but it’s never in any doubt that the heroes will escape. Its comedy is infrequent but successful in the few attempts it’s tried. All drama falls flat because of the characters being shallow and lifeless.
The Monuments Men also lacks conflict. It’s a film where characters do things but are rarely met with opposition. When they do, it doesn’t matter because (1) a positive outcome feels inevitable and (2), again, the characters don’t matter. That only happens a couple of times, anyway. For the most part, the characters just proceed in a straight line, accomplishing their goals left and right.
George Clooney directed, produced, and co-wrote the movie, as well as playing the lead role. Clooney has directed great films in the past, but this is an odd one. It’s clear he’s passionate about it, and he put a great deal of detail into making it, but he struggled to make it human, or compelling in any way, really. It looks good and feels authentic, but it delivers fewer thrills than reading a non-fiction book.
Like a dull history lecture, The Monuments Men is informative but lacks anything to hold an audience’s attention. It’s empty. The characters are shallow, the narrative is procedural and lacking in conflict, and the tone is all over the place. The film will find an audience — high school students forced to sit through it while the teacher takes a day off from doing work — but if you’re hoping for a compelling movie you’ll be disappointed. Reading the Wikipedia article would be faster and just as exciting.