George Clooney’s fifth feature film is a disappointingly executed rendering of one of those life-affirming true stories in which individuals go above and beyond to make the world better for others. Cinema seems to be good at ferretting these out lately, giving us reluctant heroes/support systems in Steve Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith (Philomena), and Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof (Dallas Buyers Club).
Clooney’s film assembles an entire platoon of heroes just as unlikely as Sixsmith and Woodroof in order to infiltrate 1940s war-torn Europe and recover centuries’ worth of priceless art stolen by the Nazis, intended for display in Hitler’s projected Führermuseum. Clooney’s is a performance of undeniable Clooneyishness – his infamous charm is misplaced and distracting – as his character Frank Stokes puts together a team of knowledgeable art historians and architects to fight for Europe’s cultural history.
Unfortunately, some of the talented and well-loved actors called upon to do their duty for Clooney and country are somewhat wasted and underused. The film feels overburdened with characters and as a result we come to know them only slowly, and some are killed before they’ve even made much of an impression.
Although museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon) is saddled with the same lame joke about his terrible French, his role in the mission becomes the most interesting to watch. While his teammates debate with US army officials who refuse to make preserving art and architecture anything like a priority, James must attempt to get valuable information out of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a Parisien museum curator who has been keeping her beedy eye on masterminding Nazi art thief Stahl.
She’s no (Blue) Jasmine, but in playing Claire Blanchett creates many of the films great moments. For example, when ordered most discourteously to bring Stahl a champagne glass in the film’s opening she spits in it, providing the first clue to her crucial importance in making the monument men’s mission a success. But James must earn her trust first.
The Monuments Men has a frustratingly plodding and episodic pace, and is praiseworthy for individual set pieces rather than for the progression of the narrative as a whole. The first act attempts to show us the men as they bond, partnering them up and sending them to various points in Europe. But their respective missions are poorly explained. They don’t achieve anything early on, and the film doesn’t manage much character development either. Stakes are higher once the men have more information, and must race to recover art before the Nazis, now aware of the mission, destroy it.
The most significant drawback is Clooney’s attempt to wrangle a serious theme in a film which, oddly, is largely light-hearted. John Goodman’s character Walter is predominantly comedic, as is the at first strained partnership of the art-experts-turned-soldiers played by Bill Murray and Bob Balaban. Yet in voice over as Frank Clooney aims for profundity, and the inevitable deaths of war are ably treated with the appropriate emotional tone, but become sporadic interruptions to the atmosphere of fun and games which just won’t stay away.
The film’s sets are impeccably realised, and hoards of extras increase the material realism of Europe at war. Sadly, the failure to maintain the necessary tones results in presentation of motivations which is far less convincing than the visuals. Ultimately The Monuments Men doesn’t convey conviction in its own message of the importance of preserving art, though we do see flashes of this in Stokes’ speeches, and in the flash-forward which provides a cameo for George Clooney’s father, and is the perfect conclusion to an imperfect film.