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When word first came out about The Monuments Men, excitement started to brew immediately. An under-looked story during World War II was now finally being told. Led by a stellar cast and under the directorial eye of George Clooney, it seemed like the perfect film for awards season. However after delays in production and negative reviews sapped all the energy out of the proceedings. I finally had a chance to give the film a look to see what exactly was the problem.
During the tail end of World War II, the Nazis were on the run and the Allied forces were making their way to victory. Meanwhile an army operation has been tasked to find and preserve countless art pieces that the Nazis have stolen. The group was made of art historians, critics, and curators. Getting as close to the front as the regular soldiers, these men put their lives at risk to protect the cultural history of Europe.
In a word, Monuments Men is safe. There’s nothing wrong with playing things safe, but Clooney and company are playing things safe to the point of boredom. The film tells a fascinating story, but the way it is told is muted and sentimental. It calls back to the days of the Hollywood films made about the war during the war. It’s a touching callback to those old films, yet it all feels out of place. Saving Private Ryan changed the way that World War II films were done and unfortunately that means films like this one still fall under the scope of comparison.
The cast is indeed stellar and commits to the material to the best of their abilities. George Clooney leads and directs the cast and Matt Damon serves as his second in command. Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin are the European exports of the cast and they lend their chops as men who not only had a stake for art, but for their home. John Goodman, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban are all good as well, offering more comedic relief. However, all of these men seem unrealistic. There isn’t a large amount of honesty to their character and the film makes all the members of the team heroic.
The whole film has that feel. It fears exploring the darker side of the war and tends to shy away from its horrors. That’s fine because we all know what happened during WWII and there should be more World War II movies that conventional (ie younger) people can go see to learn about the war. However, with these men getting so close to the front, it’s almost impossible not to address what they saw and experienced with more gritty realism. Clooney shows segments showing the camps and Normandy, but they are brushed aside as if they were an afterthought.
With this and The Ides of March, it’s shown me that George Clooney’s films can be kind of a mixed bag. There are great premises and stories and are led by talented actors, but they are drained of meaning and risk. Good Night and Good Luck is his best work, though boring for some; it is the most risky and well executed of his work. I just wish Monuments Men had been done the same way.
The Monuments Men is not a terrible movie by any means; it’s just not an altogether great one. With so much anticipation it’s easy to see why the final product is a bit of a disappointment. There’s no sense of impending danger as there should be and it makes the rest of the war seem like it was no big deal. If you’re interested in the story of art preservation during WWII, I would suggest you turn to the documentary The Rape of Europa, which presents a much grander sense of what happened. The Monuments Men certainly does not deserve as much slamming from the critics as it’s getting, it’s just not that worthwhile.
The Monuments Men can be rented, bought, or streamed anywhere movies are procured.