Remember when The Monuments Men was everyone’s pick for the best film of 2013?
It may be hard to remember now, especially now that the film has actually been released and dismissed by most critics. But, during the summer of 2013, all of the people at Goldderby and AwardsDaily were convinced that The Monuments Men would be a major player at the Oscars. Sure, the thinking went — 12 Years A Slave and August: Osage County would be major contenders but the surest bet for a win was The Monuments Men.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to laugh but, at the time, the logic behind this assumption seemed sound.
After all, The Monuments Men not only tells a true story but it also takes place during the only good war, World War II. It’s directed by George Clooney, who is the epitome of a star.. The film features supporting performances from Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and John Goodman. The film also has a valuable message about the importance of culture and how tyrants always try to control and suppress the imagination.
So, who can really blame all the usual suspects for deciding, without having actually seen the movie, that The Monuments Men would be great? Even when the film’s release date was moved from December of 2013 to February of 2014, it was assumed that it was only being moved because 12 Years A Slave was such a great film that no movie — not even The Monuments Men — could hope to compete with it for the title of best film of 2013.
“The Monuments Men?” they all said, “It’ll be the best film of 2014…”
And then, finally, The Monuments Men was released and we all got a chance to see it and…
Well, it turns out The Monuments Men was not quite what everyone was expecting. It’s not quite bad but, at the same time, it’s also not quite good. Instead, it simply is.
To its credit, The Monuments Men attempts to tells a worthy story. During the final days of World War II, Frank Stokes (played by George Clooney) leads a seven-man team of art historians who are tasked with both recovering art stolen by the Nazis and keeping allied soldiers from accidentally destroying Europe’s culture while trying to save it. Stokes and his team find themselves forced to deal with both soldiers who resent being told what they can and can not blow up and with a competing team of Russians who are eager to take as much art as they can back to Moscow.
The film makes a very relevent point about both the importance of art and why it must be preserved and protected for future generations. As the proud recipient of a degree in art history, I really wanted to like The Monuments Men. Especially considering what our President recently had to say about those of us who majored in art history, this is a film that I wanted to see succeed.
Unfortunately, The Monuments Men does not succeed. It’s an almost painfully old-fashioned film, one that features every single wartime film cliché imaginable and which never manages to be as interesting as the story its trying to tell. We like the monuments men because they’re played by actors like Bill Murray and John Goodman but we never get to know any of them as individuals and, as a result, their story falls flat.
A lot of the blame has to rest with the director. As I watched The Monuments Men, I found myself thinking about the other films that George Clooney has directed. Confessions of A Dangerous Mind is memorable largely for Sam Rockwell’s lead performance but, otherwise, the film tries way too hard to be wacky. Good Night and Good Luck is sincere but rather simplistic. Leatherheads is a comedy that’s not that funny. And finally, there’s The Ides of March, a film which thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is. I think, when it comes to George Clooney, there’s a tendency to be so blinded by his charisma that we tend to assume that he can do anything, including direct. However, if one can manage to ignore Clooney the star while considering Clooney the filmmaker, it becomes obvious that he’s actually a rather unimaginative director whose good intentions often times disguise the fact that he’s not much of a story teller.
That, ultimately, is the main problem with The Monuments Men. The film is full of effective scenes and charismatic actors but they never quite gel to form a compelling narrative. At one point in the film, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are sent to one part of Europe while Goodman and Dujardin are sent to another. We get a handful scenes featuring each team. Murray and Balaban bond with a scared German. Dujardin and Goodman deal with a teenage sniper. Suddenly, in the next scene, Clooney drives up to an army camp in a jeep and there’s Murray, Balaban, Goodman, and Dujardin all standing outside a tent, waiting for him. How did they all get back together? Where is the camp located? Did either team accomplish what they were sent out to do? The film never tells us.
(Meanwhile, the less said about a lengthy subplot featuring a lot of awkward interaction between Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett the better.)
As I said before, it’s not that The Monuments Men is a bad film. It’s just such a disappointing one.