The Monuments Men (Clooney/14)
“The Monuments Men” (2014), directed by George Clooney, his fifth film behind the camera, makes use of an irresistible premise: recover art works looted by the Nazis during the dying days of World War II. Not only is this a story never told before in the cinema (leading to an aura of uniqueness not often found with Hollywood studio pictures), but Clooney has assembled an enviable cast alongside himself with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Cate Blancett.
Yet as a war film about art, it rarely seems too concerned about the specifics of the paintings and sculptures they’re trying to rescue. Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” are the main focus of the film, providing a narrative thread for the script (written by Clooney and Grant Heslov), but the thousands upon thousands of other pieces of art (emphasised by frequent shots of warehouses or mines stacked with canvases) are generalised into anonymous cultural property in the need of preservation. It’s frustrating, as are many parts of the film.
It lacks a strong narrative drive, being, until the last third, very episodic – some are fine, like Murray’s and Balaban’s encounter with a young German soldier at night, but others, such as discovering barrels of gold teeth taken from Jews exterminated by the Holocaust, show the film’s inadequacy dealing with the horrors of war. The pathos of members of the team dying and the mass destruction of art in impromptu bonfires lit by the German army are themes it finds hard enough to grasp and make the audience appreciate their impact. It keeps bumping into these big, important topics, the occupation of France and the role of collaborators say, pursuing them for a little while in subplots before backing away, unsure how to proceed, like over the use of child soldiers by the Germans, which is turned into almost an amusing anecdote.
This dichotomy between seriousness and a lighter, caper feel, reminiscent at times of late sixties and early seventies war films (think “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) and their ilk, a feeling reinforced by Alexandre Desplat’s bass-heavy music score) leads to an uneasily balance not solved by Clooney’s at times uncertain and uneven direction. It always looks good thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s eye for framing, but the characters’ speeches, justifying the importance of art even during wartime, sits awkwardly with the more cinematic moments, particularly the climactic race against time to liberate a huge storage of art.
It remains entertaining and well-acted throughout, but it’s clear that this is a film which could have been a more powerful exploration of its subject than it is. A missed opportunity then, enjoyable though, despite its failings.