The Monuments Men

Oh George where art thou? Reunited with co-producer Grant Heslov, fresh from the success of Argo, they lurch from realpolitik thriller territory into war-time adventure. With directorial successes such as Good Night and Good Luckand The Ides of March under his belt, we expect an exciting – yet intellectual, this being Gorgeous George – caper into the Second World War.

‘Based on a true story’ – and very loosely by all accounts, as the real Monuments team numbered 300, here whittled down to the Magnificent Seven – Clooney leads a mixed bag of art restorers, sculptors and architects to recover the Nazi’s looted art before the war ends, and it disappears either into Hitler’s glorious Fuhrer Museum, Russian hands or a funeral pyre. We have a magnificent cast – John Goodman, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Bob Balaban – who have the ability to play this as a nail-biter or for laughs. 

Sadly, Clooney is overcome by earnestness, and fails to take either path. In his desire for worthiness, he delivers a loosely-linked series of episodes, in various locations, in a self-seeking justification of the US army’s great achievement of saving Europe’s art.  Where are the Brits in all this, we ask? Hugh Bonneville’s recovering alcoholic gent is a sad nod to our involvement in this team. 

Yes, there are one or two jokes, for instance the banter between Dujardin and Goodman as to who should draw the sniper fire, Matt Damon’s appalling French complete with subtitles, the discovery of a horde of grand masters in a German farmhouse – but apart from that the laughs are few and far between.

Similarly, moments with dramatic potential are wasted: the possibility of a frisson between Damon and Blanchett glossed over and completely spoiled by her thin script and dreadful accent; as for Damon, one wonders what his role is at all until, at the end of the film, he manages to charm the catalogue of missing art works from the Ice Queen. Any other director could have used this as a plot builder and made a cracking yarn àla Raiders of the Lost Ark. But George seems more interested in posterity –  and his legacy, of course.

I keep on wanting to shout at the screen, Hey this is a war film, where are the bangs, the armies and the fighting? Where is there any sense of danger or tension? On the one occasion where we think we might be in for a thrill or two, it is dissipated in the following scene.  What a let-down. Instead we have an eerily silent countryside, while war should be raging around us, with the only sounds being generated by our blundering crew. Bring back TheDam BustersTheBridge Over the River Kwaiand Saving Private Ryan! Those are proper war films.

Annoyingly, with such a great cast of character actors, the one thing they are missing is – character! We find out so little about each of them, that there’s no obvious answer to Clooney’s lugubrious question, ‘Is a work of art worth a man’s life?’ Do we care? Even the Nazi enemies are cardboard cut-outs, consequently our emotions about the task in hand are barely ruffled, despite passing glances at The Burgers of Calais, the altar piece from Ghent and a burning Picasso .So come on George, if you’re going to continue to direct and star in your own films, you need to throw off the over-intellectualising, decide your genre and follow it through. Or you can keep advertising Nespresso, which you do so well.

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