Published Feb 06, 2014Having been delayed a couple of times, George Clooney's latest directorial effort (following The Ides of March and Leatherheads) is being dropped into theatres in the theatrical dead zone that is February. It's a bad sign for a film that features Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bob Balaban, The Artist's Jean Dujardin, Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville and Clooney himself. One look at the film, however, and it's clear why.
The Monuments Men tells the true-life tale of a group of older, no-longer-combat-ready soldiers who were tasked with protecting Europe's greatest art collections from the Nazis, who were hell-bent on stealing or destroying these invaluable collections as the Second World War came to a close. It's a handsomely mounted production — it looks lovely, and appears on the surface to have all the hallmarks of a "serious" film — but it's suffused with such an overbearing self-righteousness about the "important" work being done that it sucks the life out of the tale as an entertaining movie.
Not since the propaganda films of the '40s have cinemas seen such a cartoonish portrayal of German soldiers — the moustache twirling villains of the Indiana Jones movies have more subtlety. And neither have American soldiers been so virtuous, so pure of intent and noble in action, even if one puts aside from the ponderous voice-overs about how "art is our story" and this work is being done to save "nothing less than the very soul of our society." On at least two separate occasions, American soldiers happen upon a young, frightened German soldier; on both occasions, the Americans nobly let these young men — simply confused about what's right and wrong — go free, with no later consequences at all. (This trope was old when Spielberg employed it much more effectively in Saving Private Ryan in 1998.)
As if the sombre voice-overs about art's significance weren't enough, several soldiers (Hugh Bonneville's Donald Jeffries in particular) have a deep, personal connection to a specific piece, and the troupe then go to extra special effort to save a particular Michelangelo statue, for example, because a childhood moment of connection with one piece of art had some individual resonance. Naturally, the evil, hoarding Nazis never understood art or beauty and can only reap destruction; art can only be saved by the pure of heart and noble of understanding, like John Goodman.
The other frustration with The Monuments Men — setting aside that they conveniently ignore other historical injustices, like how a British museum would have an extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts, and how those were acquired by less-than-noble means — is that for having such a great cast, there's not a lot for anyone to actually do. Various soldiers are sent off on individual missions — Cate Blanchett, as a French woman who's catalogued the movement of many valuable art pieces — interacts almost exclusively with Damon's James Granger, while John Goodman's Walter Garfield is on his own adventure with Jean Dujardin's Jean Claude Clermont. But with only thin characters, there's no opportunity for an actor as unique as Bill Murray to bring any Bill Murray-ness to the role. While these are perfectly fine performances, there's not enough for anyone to chew on to make an interesting or complex character.
Complexity is out of reach of The Monuments Men, for that would require a more nuanced portrayal of good and evil, or of the nature of private acquisition versus public good when it comes to art. Instead, art belongs to the people as long as they're people of the capitalist West, and anyone who believes otherwise is nothing but a no good evil Nazi.