Featuring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett
Director: George Clooney
Writer: George Clooney, Grant Heslov (bsed on the book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter)
Movie website: www.sonypictures.com/movies/themonumentsmen/
Australian release date: March 13th, 2014
Verdict: The classy cast should have guaranteed a winner, but they struggle due to the disjointed narrative structure and inadequate characterisation.
A unit of specialists in arts-related fields is sent to Europe in the later stages of WW2 to track down and retrieve art masterpieces stolen by the Nazis. Based on a true story.
It’s mid WW2, and the Nazis have been systematically plundering private and public collections of some of Europe’s greatest art treasures, stashing their bounty in hiding spots in das Vaterland, the choicest pieces intended for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum. Enter a small unit of American and Euro specialists from arts-related fields evidently prepared to die in pursuit of the stolen art.
The commander is curator Frank Stokes (George Clooney), who assembles the “team” after rather effortlessly managing to convince American military chiefs of the worth of the mission – saving Western culture, no less. His crew are an unlikely lot. Some are a bit long in the tooth for the daring deeds ahead of them, some more than a tad eccentric (these arty types, you know). Irreverent witty exchanges abound. Too much in fact, and for too long. The comedy is OK initially as the team is getting to know each other in England, but begins to jar as oh-so-consciously “entertaining” when the serious business of tracking down the stolen art gets underway.
The men are sent off on assignments to various parts of Europe, some alone, others in pairs. At this point the plot gets disjointed, as the action moves between characters in different locales, also jumping forward in time.
American curator James (Matt Damon) takes the story thread to newly liberated Paris, where he meets up with museum staffer Claire (Cate Blanchett – not one of her better performances), who has kept meticulous records of the systematic looting overseen by the SS officer for whom she worked. She refuses to cooperate at first, suspicious about the Americans’ art recovery agenda, subjecting James to the sort of frosty treatment that always signals romantic attraction (in the movies!).
Cut to alcoholic Brit art expert unit member (Hugh Bonneville) on a solo mission in Belgium, where he encounters some Nazi soldiers in the process of swiping a beautiful Michelangelo Madonna and child sculpture from a church.
Then to an army camp in the snow close to the front where the Battle of the Bulge is raging. It’s around Christmas, 1944. On sentimental cue, someone puts on a record that has arrived in the post, broadcasting it over the camp public address system. It’s a greeting from home for architect Richard (Bill Murray), who is in the shower when it comes on. Beginning with Christmas wishes from his loved ones, it is followed by his wife’s slow and breathy rendition of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Bill Murray does his best to look overcome and wring some emotion out of the scene, but it’s hard to care about his character or family without knowing something of his backstory.
The same goes for the others. They are apportioned approximately equal screen time, but there are too many of them for that to add up to much; there is not enough time for adequate character development, and the film is emotionally flat as a result.
There are some exciting parts, but the lack of continuity resulting from the disjointed plot structure cuts the tension off at the knees. Towards the end, a contrived tension device is introduced in the impending arrival of the looting and marauding Russians, who will surely swoop on a Nazi cache of stolen art treasures and appropriate it for their own country unless the “monuments men” can remove them from harm’s way. It’s a race against the clock when Michelangelo’s sculpture – the one from the Belgian church – is discovered at the last minute, with the Russians fast approaching. No prizes for guessing what happens.
Oh, and an American flag is left hanging triumphantly from the entrance to the mineshaft in which the art had been hidden. A middle finger greeting to those Ruskie heathens and God bless America for winning the war AND saving Western culture into the bargain.
Apparently the film sticks fairly closely to the non-fiction book on which it was based, each character taken from a real-life prototype. Drama and ‘reality’ are not often good bedfellows. This is a case where focusing on one or two main characters and trimming the storyline of tributaries to concentrate the flow might have compromised the truth, but saved the drama.
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