Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

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Director: George Clooney
Screenwriter: George Clooney & Grant Heslov
Based on The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, a non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett & Dimitri Leonidas
Runtime: 118 min // Certificate: 12a

“Show, don’t tell” is the first rule of filmmaking, so you’d think someone with as many movies under his belt as George Clooney – who by now must know the intricacies of working both in front of and behind the camera almost as well as he knows how to woo women half his age – would understand how to perform such a simple task. Alas, despite the constant assurances that his latest film, The Monuments Men, is all about the wonder and importance of art in the face of intense human adversity, he fails to convince the audience of the merits of his story by simple virtue of the fact that you never once feel that his universal message rings true.

Set at the height of World War 2, Clooney’s film tells the true story of a group of Allies known as the Monuments Men, whose task it was to recover art stolen by the Nazis and ensure that no further priceless historical artefacts were destroyed in the conflict. Led in this telling of the story by Frank Stokes (Clooney), the group travel across Europe in the search for paintings, statues and other treasures so that they can return them to their rightful owners once the war is over. With a small team of dedicated men under his command and the express but reluctant support of the President, Stokes sets off on a mission to prove that no matter what horrors the Nazis inflict on the World, human artistic achievements will always survive.

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The problem with The Monuments Men is that for a film which waxes lyrical about the virtues of courageous men and magnificent art, it is both a very safe and somewhat bland affair. Clooney approaches the material and the true story upon which it is based with all the conviction of a wet lettuce, almost as though he himself doesn’t really believe in the message he’s attempting to convey. Nothing about the film is explicitly bad, yet none of it is memorable, emotional or affecting. The characters move from one location to the next, save some art and then have bleak, pseudo-philosophical chats about the pointlessness of the conflict before moving on again. After a decent but predictable start the film becomes bogged down by repetition, which results in the already uninspiring story slipping into inveterate tedium.

Where Clooney’s film shows the most untapped potential is in its curious combination of light humour and darker wartime propaganda that litters its earlier scenes. The presence of people like Murray and Balaban grants a more light-hearted spin on the proceedings that shows promise but ultimately goes underutilised, resulting in a series of events that feel manipulative, dishonest and, worst of all, entirely forced. There are a few fun moments and some of the humour is enjoyable, but because it’s all interspersed with so many moments of over-indulgent, faux-emotional tripe it quickly loses most of its impact. Whenever the film threatens to do something fresh or interesting it quickly backs down again, instead resorting to all of the generic, dull-as-ditchwater tropes that we’ve come to expect from such blatant propaganda over the years, which is a shame because there’s a lot of potential on show here.

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Nevertheless, despite this, The Monuments Men remains passable, though only because some (and I stress the word “some” there) of the performances are pretty solid. Clooney phones in a version of himself, which is fine but – as always – unremarkable, while Matt Damon does the best he can with a pretty turgid screenplay. Bonneville and Murray are the only two people in the film who even come close to granting the enterprise a much-needed emotional edge (though their endeavour ultimately fails), while Cate Blanchett is a charming screen presence but only because she’s Cate Blanchett and Cate Blanchett is awesome in everything… with one obvious exception.

Ultimately, The Monuments Men feels like a wasted opportunity. It’s problematic, it’s much too safe and it outstays its welcome by about half an hour, though I must admit to still finding it reasonably entertaining. Clooney’s direction is solid, the performances are – for the most part – fine and the idea upon which the film is based is great… although this is why it’s such a shame that the exploration of said idea is, in most respects, rather lacking. Nonetheless, the film does have a certain charm to it and, despite its numerous issues I think it’s a fine film. Alas, that’s all it is. It’s worth a look but I just can’t see it bowling anyone over the way Clooney seemed to have intended it to.