Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas
During World War II, Adolf Hitler notoriously spent a great deal of time and energy cataloging and appropriating the great art works of the countries he invaded and the people he had imprisoned and killed. Thousands of sculptures and paintings were stolen and hidden away in homes and mines all through Germany and Austria, and much of the rest were destroyed, lost forever – labeled and burned as “degenerate art”.
The Monuments Men is the true story of a group of unlikely soldiers tasked with finding, protecting, and returning all the lost art from WWII. And while it may seem like a story steeped in the past, the artworks are timeless. The very fact that, as of 2013, we are still finding lost art pieces – important works of art thought destroyed and lost to time – makes this noble struggle to preserve the culture of humanity incredibly relevant.
The importance of that struggle and the preservation of a very specific time in history is specifically what director George Clooney does so well with this film. He has a real feeling for the time period, the style, the places, and the relevance of events. There are moments when The Monuments Men feels like one of those period buddy war films – something like The Great Escape meets The Guns of Navarone meets Hogan’s Heroes. The music especially contributes to a sense of nostalgia, conveying a sense of pomp and playfulness to the proceedings. Clooney also knows how to use his filming locations to great effect, using classic and recognizable locations that add a sense of legitimacy – playing on both our historical and cinematic memory. The Bruges, Belgium and beach at Normandy are two very distinctive locations that spring to mind.
There are also moments of incredible significance and scope presented during the course of the film – the burning of precious art pieces, or the discovery of large barrels filled with wedding rings and the gold fillings from the teeth of those who had been murdered – that fill you with a terrible, physical sickness. It is so subtle – a moment presented as cold, hard fact – without all the trimmings and manipulations that might tarnish the raw feeling of it. Clooney makes the choice not to hit his audience over the head with the atrocities committed, because he knows the pure fact is enough.
And while the historical and dramatic aspects of the film are extremely affecting, the stellar cast delivers a somewhat disappointing performance. There is an interesting Avengers style pairing off of seemingly incompatible team members who highlight each others’ strengths and weaknesses, learning from each other as we learn from them. However, the film is so busy with the historical aspects, that there isn’t sufficient time to explore these pairings. At the same time, the cast seems tired or bored or unmotivated. Something about how they go through the movie seems somehow lackluster.
The only really excellent performance was a rare dramatic moment from Bill Murray as he listens to a recorded Christmas greeting from his daughter and grandchildren. Everyone else, even Bill Murray for the rest of the movie, basically phones it in. Anyone who was hoping that this was a WWII version of Ocean’s 11 will be severely disappointed in the range of performances and the lack of character distinction. Although, Nick Clooney – George’s dad – was inspired casting to play old George Clooney.
Overall, the film itself feels a little uneven, moving between character exploits and historical representation – but as always, Clooney has a great feel for the authentic. He clearly knows his film styles, both American and European, and he puts that knowledge to excellent use creating a feeling of timelessness, familiarity, and nostalgia. Oddly enough, the film also has an annoying, kitschy patriotism in certain parts. Perhaps its just a product of the kind of period film that Clooney was aiming for, but the lack of subtlety did occasionally irk. Do we really still think Russians are the bad guys? I probably don’t want to know the answer to that question if I want to maintain my faith in humanity.