The Monuments Men (2014) – Directed by George Clooney – Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Dimitri Leonidas, and Grant Heslov.
SPOILERS — SPOILERS — SPOILERS — SPOILERS
When the first MONUMENTS MEN trailers arrived, the film’s comedic elements were front and center, but after the film was pushed out of the December Awards Zone and into February, the ads had a harder edge to them, as if this were a serious war flick. This change disappointed me greatly because I was really drawn to the idea of a war film that was closer to the dry humor of the Danny Ocean movies than the Dirty Dozen, but I thought this was purely a marketing decision and that viewing MONUMENTS MEN would reveal a film much closer to the original trailer.
THE MONUMENTS MEN is a woefully confused movie, a film that seems to be caught between George Clooney the Movie Star and George Clooney the Director. Movie Star Clooney is perfectly at ease moving around war-torn Europe, cosplaying as Mogambo-era Clark Gable, and chumming it up with old friends and acquaintances to put the Monuments Men together to save European art from the Nazis. Director Clooney – or maybe it would be more accurate to point the finger at Producer Clooney, so let’s go ahead and call him Management Clooney – seems bound and determined to counter every moment of lightheartedness and humor with pompous sermonizing about the glory of Art and grim reminders of death.
Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth … the film almost seems embarrassed by the humor it develops during the first 15 minutes, and through much of the film there’s an aimless wandering as the film desperately tries to find both a plot and a vision.
In the opening moments, Frank Stokes (Clooney) is trying to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make a concerted effort to save the European art that Hitler is accumulating and protect the historic buildings that are being targeted by both Axis and Allied troops. FDR needs some convincing and, in large part, MONUMENTS spends the next two hours trying to overcome the President’s doubts.
The best parts of MONUMENTS largely happen during the set-up, as Stokes heads out to put together his team of curators, architects, and aficionados: James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). Once they get to Europe, they’re joined by the Brit, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and the Frenchman, Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and they recruit the German-born, Jersey raised Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas) to serve as driver/translator.
I like all of these actors and I desperately wanted to love MONUMENTS MEN. Right through their first meeting, I was completely on board with the serious back-drop and humorous approach to the mission. The first hint of a problem comes when Stokes starts splitting the team up: Granger goes to France to … hang out with the Resistance and ride in a horse-drawn carriage. And to speak French poorly. Granger’s slight mashing of French is good for some laughs, but the film only uses humor to draw you in and make you comfortable. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, and it’s a shame because Granger making unintentionally funny sentences is more engaging than his awkward relationship with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French resistance fighter working as a secretary for the Nazis in Paris.
As the film unfolds and we get the Monuments Men (mostly) paired up to investigate their separate avenues, the film lurches for purchase to match its purpose. Damon spends all that pointless time at the barn, then is sent to a Nazi-sympathizer prison where he meets up with the uncooperative Simone. Campbell and Savitz do a bit of a road movie routine. Stokes and Epstein do a more serious version of a road movie, and Clermont and Garfield split the difference. All of these tracks have individual moments of enjoyability, but there’s no definitive plan to their movements. It’s just, “let’s find and save what we can,” and it leads to Clermont and Garfield getting shot at by a kid, and Campbell and Savitz charming their way out of a stand-off with an enemy soldier.
None of this is bad, but neither does it carry through on the dryly humorous opening sequences.
The one story that really catches hold and gives us something special is the solo mission of Donald Jeffries, a man who has made embarrassing mistakes with his life and now, in the dying days of middle age, sees being one of the Monuments Men a chance at redemption. He goes on his own to Bruges, where a statue of Madonna and child that holds special meaning to him, resides. Arriving in the Allied camp outside of town, he is told the army has made a deal with the mayor of the town and the occupying Nazis – the Allies won’t attack and the Nazis will just leave. Jeffries believes the Nazis will torch the town and so is not afforded any help. He sneaks into town on his own, and it’s in these moments of Jeffries bicycling into town and then sneaking around in the shadows, that MONUMENTS gives us a narrative with a real purpose. Jeffries wants to save that statue because it’s a place he used to visit. He’s there when the Nazis arrive, and he dies during the theft.
In between his arrival at the church and his death, he pens a letter to his father where he takes responsibility for his poor decisions and makes it clear that he sees what he’s doing now as a redemptive act.
The letter serves as a rallying point for the movie; with the Madonna statue gone and Jeffries dead, Stokes decides he needs to get that statue back. The film now focuses itself towards finding that statue, and while that’s good for the narrative, the acquisition of a firmer purpose is negated by the drop-off of humor. But I don’t want to let it pass without acknowledging that Hugh Bonneville is the best part of MONUMENTS MEN, as his character and his performance strike the right tone between humor and drama; it’s his personal demons that make him work, though, and his ability to come up with both the dry, self-depricating quip and display an honest sense of remorse. For the rest of the Monuments Men, this whole experience feels like a lark – none of them have personal demons to overcome, and Stokes’ insistence that “we’ve earned the right to wear the uniform” after Jeffries’ death rings with a touch of smugness and a heaping of defensiveness.
To be clear, I’d be perfectly okay if they all treated this as something closer to a lark than the horrors of war. They’re not soldiers. They’re not in Europe to save London or liberate France or end the Holocaust. They’re there to save works of art and that’s a noble enough pursuit, in its own right, that that I wish the film had the strength of its own convictions and just told the story without worrying about constantly trying to make it okay that they put John Goodman through basic training.
I hate ascribing intentions to people, and I do not know if Clooney or writing/producing partner Grant Heslov (who has a small role in the film as a doctor) meant to Oscar bait, but the repeated monologues about the importance of Art (something I completely agree with) rub your raw after the fifth or sixth time. It’s the beauty of Art and the recognition that it plays in the culture of a people that are critically important, and the film tells us this but doesn’t do a good enough job showing us this. For a movie about the importance of Art, the Art in the film feels cold and distant (with the Jeffries’ Madonna statue being an exception). Because there is so much Art, it feels commodified and objectified instead of loved and appreciated. That’s why Jeffries’ story resonates so strongly, because he’s got a personal connection to this particular piece. With Jeffries, the Art isn’t just the Art, isn’t just something to appreciate for the skill of the artist, but because of the personal connection we have with it.
Finally, at the end of the film, Stokes comes around to this as we see the older, 1977 version of himself (played by Clooney’s father, Nick) visiting the statue with his grandson. Now, we see that personal connection to it, a connection forged in this struggle to save it.
THE MONUMENTS MEN is what I call an “AMC Movie” because it’s full of recognizable stars stuck in an unmemorable film. Unmemorable doesn’t automatically mean it is a good or bad thing, but here there’s only a few truly unique moments that stick with me (Stokes interrogation of a German officer, for instance), and as a result, MONUMENTS MEN doesn’t stick with me, either.