I don’t want to say that The Monuments Men is bad. After all, the talent on screen and behind the camera is impressive, and the story being told is fascinating and largely unknown. This is a film featuring and from some of the most capable, enjoyable men in the film business today. But the thing is that it’s bad. Not unwatchable bad, but bad in a way that makes you shake your head in utter disappointment as you leave the theater.
It’s WWII and the Allies have begun moving towards Germany; Hitler is on the ropes. But between our forces and victory lie the greatest treasures of Western Civilization, paintings and sculptures and gorgeous cathedrals that are just as susceptible to bomb blasts as soldiers. The final straw is broken when an Allied bombing run destroys the church where DaVinci’s The Last Supper is displayed, and only a miracle leaves it intact as the rest of the structure is blown to hell. George Clooney, who is… an art guy? I’m not being snarky here, I’m not entirely certain what his character’s relationship to art or the military is - convinces FDR to task a small group of other art guys to hit Europe and save as much stuff as they can.
Turns out bombs aren’t their only concern. Hitler is bringing all the great art to Germany, hoping to build the world’s biggest museum (of the stuff he likes; modern masters like Picasso get incinerated). The mission isn’t just to keep the art from destruction, it’s to keep it from being perverted for the pleasure of the Master Race.
Clooney’s team - Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville - make their way through battlefields and ruined towns to find and secure pieces. This sounds like the recipe for a delight, a movie that has the mischievous sparkle of the Ocean’s films but with the sense of historical gravitas of Good Night, And Good Luck. But it doesn’t; The Monuments Men is so tonally flat that neither the bits that should sparkle - Murray and Balaban as a mismatched duo sparring their way through war zones - or the bits that should have gravitas - the deaths of members of the squad - work. The whole thing is flat, the texture of the piece lost under a heavy shellacing of what seems like awards-catching lacquer.
A huge part of the problem lies in the script, by Clooney and partner Grant Heslov. At two hours The Monuments Men plays like the Cliff’s Notes version of the story; almost no scene gets a chance to breathe, and we’re constantly hurrying from a set up to a payoff without hitting any of the meat inbetween that makes a scene live. So many of the scenes feel like first drafts, like the actors are walking through the paces and Clooney is behind the camera saying “And this is the part where you’ll say something really great, but we’ll figure it out later.”
That hurried pace (in the scenes themselves; the film is slackly paced in a larger sense) means that none of the characters come through. They’re all reduced to a trait (if even that. I think casting Bill Murray is the only trait his character gets - he’s Bill Murray. He also wears an ascot), and these great actors simply have no further depth to work with. Given more time I’m sure they could have brought these one dimensional people to life, but in the current form it’s hopeless.
Matt Damon gets the closest thing to a real arc (everybody else has vignettes that punctuate the expected parts of an arc, not an actual organic arc), but his story is frankly the least interesting. As everyone else makes their way through the war Damon is in liberated Paris, trying to convince Cate Blanchett’s French art… something (honestly, the expertise of these characters isn’t always made terribly clear. I know Damon is an expert in medieval art at the Met. John Goodman is a sculptor) to share her knowledge of what the Germans did with all the pilfered Parisian art. She thinks the Americans will just take all the art back to the USA, robbing her people of their cultural heritage. Blanchett is good enough, but she has a role that reduces her character to a woman who pines for Matt Damon, and it’s unclear if she eventually helps him for the cause of because she thinks he’s hot.
Is George Clooney a good director? Five films in I should have a better answer to this question. Good Night, And Good Luck is excellent and The Ides of March is passable. Leatherheads is forgettable, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a curiosity. He's definitely doing his best with The Monuments Men, but so many of his choices - especially the way he attempts parallel action and his use of occasional voiceover to add heaviness to a scene (but really just robbing it of any tension or drama) - are totally off. Watching The Monuments Men I understand the movie Clooney wanted to make, I just don't know where in the process he proved unable to make it.
The hugest bummer in The Monuments Men is that Clooney and Heslov are interested in all the right questions - the idea of what value our lives and history have without our art, the question of to whom that art belongs and the question of whether it’s worth dying for these things - but they examine those questions in a largely lifeless movie - a movie that does not come to life even when a constant, overly insistent score is played over it. I wanted to love The Monuments Men, and I spent the running time hoping it was a slow starter, that it would finally come together into something sublime. It never did.