Now that January is over we are starting to get into the time of the year where Hollywood starts releasing movies that they actually care about. The Monuments Men has been in production for a while now, and after missing its proposed release date last year, we finally get to see George Clooney’s World War II movie. Although The Monuments Men benefits from an interesting story and wonderful cast, it ultimately gets bogged down by unfocused story telling that never really conveys to full impact of the story.
Let’s talk about what works first. The biggest thing that this movie has going for it is its cast. Really, you cannot go wrong with a cast including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Bonneville. Having so many big names together in one film gives The Monuments Men a vaguely Ocean’s Eleven feel to it, and it is wonderful to see such a great cast work together. Everybody pulls their weight equally, and the film is able to rely (probably a bit too much) on the innate charm of these various actors. Unfortunately the script oftentimes does not really know what to do with such big names, but it is a joy to see these various actors work off of each other.
The other thing that this movie has going for it is the novelty of this being a story that is not usually put to film. Most audiences are not aware of Hitler’s thirst to collect the art of the world and the damage that it would have done to the various cultures of the world. Its interesting to see and learn about what the Monuments Men went through in order to protect our cultural heritage during a time of war. This also brings up the idea that the casualties of war are not only people and money, but also our history and our culture. Mainstream movies do not deal with those sort of themes, and it was great to see a different take on World War II.
Unfortunately the movie itself suffers from a lack of narrative focus that severely diminishes the emotional impact that the subject material might have. Although as an audience we are aware of the risks from an academic standpoint, the film never really does a good job helping us feel what is at stake. Rather, we were just told in various scenes of exposition why it was important to save the art. Because of that, the audience has to meet the movie more than half way and is required to become aware of the stakes on your own due to the poor job the script does of establishing the risks on its own accord.
Part of the problem is that for most of the movie the Monuments Men are split up over France and Germany. Although this leads to some fun parings (Bill Murray and Bob Balaban being the most fun to watch) it makes the narrative much less focused when the film is constantly cross cutting between various locations. The frequent cross cutting does not allow momentum to build up throughout the film and makes it feel episodic overall. For the first two-thirds of the movie we are shown various vignettes of the Monuments Men travelling all over Europe instead of developing a strong forward moving narrative. In the third half this is rectified as all the Monuments Men come together to race against the clock and the Russian army. This is where the film really shines and I found myself wishing that they had just spent the movie developing the events of the last third. Having everybody together for the whole movie would have allowed the film makers to capitalize on their all-star cast and develop enough momentum to make the film exciting and the stakes higher. Instead we are treated to a bunch of loosely connected plot points that never really feel emotionally fulfilling.
Those are the two major problems with The Monuments Men but otherwise it is just a slow, dull movie. This is an unfortunate missed opportunity. The story of these men and what they did to protect our cultural heritage is interesting, and I hope that somewhere down the line a film maker will be able to make a more interesting film based off of this story. As it is, The Monuments Men will only be remembered as a footnote to George Clooney’s prolific career as an actor and director.