War films, whether featuring a conflict as their focus or as a more tangential aspect of a story, have always been dodgy territory for me. In some instances they are a part of society’s need to educate, understand and comprehend through representation, be it a dry history lesson or intense forced experience. In others they are sensationalism disguised as gung-ho bravura, exploitation of what are among the darkest, most heinous events in human history for profit. Often they are an irreconcilable hybrid of both. The Monuments Men is neither and should probably not actually exist.
Based on true events, George Clooney is tasked with rounding up a band of aging, disparate, troubled men and with them locate and recapture the art stolen from mainly all over France by the Nazis to populate the planned Führermuseum. A noble real-life quest and an interesting concept for a film (the theme of the value of art vs. life and both in regards to human achievement has potential) are squandered on a film crushed out of coherent shape under its own excesses. Events and plot and subplots and characters – though not too much actual character – are all desperately vying for equal space, ultimately producing a wildly uneven form.
Aptly enough, I have so many issues with The Monuments Men that I couldn’t possibly cover everything in a straightforward review without rivalling Tolstoy in length. So, in ‘honour’ of the fragmentary, jaunty structure of the film I will henceforth continue this review as a series of points, ponderings and flights of fancy; compiled from a list of various musings that sprung to mind while I was still watching, I’ve never been drawn out of a film enough to do such a thing before now and that probably says a lot about said film.
1. Clooney. Damon. A troupe of specialists. Theft. One-liners aplenty. Its Ocean’s 11!
2. Blanchett. Nazis. Priceless artefacts. Rooms full of crates. One-liners aplenty. It’s Indiana Jones!
3. Right, so the Germans speak German to each other and the French speak English to each other and the English speak poor French to the French and all the French speak perfect English to the English and oh, what does it matter anyway, it’s just another Valkyrie.
4 .Okay, on a less frivolously glib note, the music. It’s often said that the best scores are those which one doesn’t notice, interlocking with the images they accompany so unobtrusively. To whatever extent that is true, I think few would agree that the music to accompany a relatively serious foray into World War II should call to mind at first the Wallace and Gromit theme and later the Chicken Run score (the latter of which is actually a parody of TMM-style movies).
5. Matt Damon? Beaches of Normandy? Do you really want to be self-consciously drawing the comparisons to Saving Private Ryan with your historically-dodgy, neutered Boys Own adventure story, Mr. Men?
6. The scenes of post-battle war destruction filmed in grandiose, sweeping, meticulously structured shots seem very much in vogue in the last decade, from Atonement to The Railway Man. Unfortunately their audacious, rhythmic compositions work in practice more like a dance routine than providing scale and gravity, distancing the audience and causing them to ask not “how can these immense horrors have happened?” but rather “ooh crikey, how long did that take to film?”
7. Ooh look, French people. We know they’re French because they constantly talk about ‘gay Paree’ and alcohol and wear berets and ride bicycles. That is all I have to say on that matter.
8. Numerous events which eventually become tenuously intrinsic to the narrative begin as positively insane tangents. I don’t need to see horse petting in this two-hour-long chaotic mess, you’re wasting enough of my time as it is.
9. Speaking of which, when one of your characters eats a foodstuff which causes teeth problems, causing him to go to the dentist who then just happens to be related to one of the people you’re after on your quest, you are relying too much on happenstance, coincidence and plain old luck to be taken seriously (though admittedly said event is supposedly based on a kernel of truth).
10. Mr. Clooney, you wrote and directed deftly before, have you just given up now Gravity has depoliticised you into a populist crowd-pleaser again?
11. Finally, my biggest issue is how tonally uneven it is. I personally wouldn’t begrudge a light adventure movie set during wartime (I just wouldn’t watch). The movie can’t then be bent into featuring serious moments (such as certain characters deaths) whenever the levity needs to be brought into check. A scene which could contain great gravitas and emotional weight, discovering huge sacks full of gold fillings, is enfeebled by frolicsome misadventures with mines in mines. Sorry, Men, you’ve simply not earned the right to such solemnity and the fact it’s been attempted disrupts the aforementioned levity.
Ultimately, The Monuments Men could have been a disposable, entertaining enough romp through a rare new facet of an oft-explored period of history provided the dialogue was snappy and the all-star cast was visibly enjoying themselves. But the dialogue isn’t snappy enough and the cast couldn’t look more bored – Bill Murray appears positively comatose – and those attempted forays into depth (relatives in the resistance, disgraced individuals redeemed in sacrifice) look at best misguided and at worst insulting. If you can overlook such glaring issues and leave the proverbial brain at the door then you’ll probably find it a passable two hours. Or maybe it’s all just me…