Review: The Monuments Men

February 11, 2014 / by / 28 Comments

Frustrating in a fun way

The story retold in The Monuments Men is a pretty great one. Amidst the greatest war the world has ever seen, a crack team of art enthusiasts goes on a special mission to rescue the most iconic pieces of art in Western history. Even for people who don’t consider themselves art buffs (like myself), it’s hard not to appreciate the passion behind a team of men risking their lives for artwork.

It is surprising, then, that such a unique and admirable story turned into such a mediocre-at-best film. Overall, the movie had considerable entertainment value, but at the same time, it severely lacked nuance in several departments.

Most of the cast needs a pacemaker, and so does the film itself

It didn’t take long to realize that the film’s pacing was remarkably weak. After showing three brief montages of the struggle to preserve art in Europe, we immediately see prestigious art history professor Frank Stokes (played by Clooney) giving a lecture to President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry Stimson about the importance of preserving art, because during a world war, the president of the United States always likes to keep himself updated on the state of European artwork. After what I seem to remember as a 45-second conversation, President Roosevelt gives Stokes permission to assemble a team to rescue the pieces of art from the Nazis.

Within the next five minutes, we’re introduced to Stokes’ entire crack team of art enthusiasts who are going to save Western art history. Do we get any backstories at all? No. No, we don’t. Maybe I missed the memo and was supposed to watch the prequel, The Monuments Boys, which I would imagine to be some confused crossbreed of Doubt and Gallipoli. And beyond introducing the characters too quickly and without enough detail, the movie hurries to reach seminal moments. It wasn’t even 30 minutes into the movie when you hear the first “You’re great men and it’s such a marvelous honor to serve alongside you” speech. What’s that, The Monuments Men? You want me to meet your family? But this is just the first date! Let’s just slow down a bit, yeah?

Aren’t crack teams supposed to be cool and make sense?

The idea of a crack team is pretty great. You gather a squad of experts in disparate fields, put them together, and they can accomplish great things and hopefully don’t get in one another’s way too much. Until I saw The Monuments Men, I had always thought any film based on a crack team had to be at least moderately cool. This movie, however, features a crack team with seemingly no specialties or distinguishing characteristics. It’s literally just seven guys who feel passionately about art, something I could probably find at the public library at 7am on a Saturday.

To emphasize my point, I’m going to give you a rundown of the roster of The Monuments Men and everything I know about them.

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) — Art History professor. Yes, that’s the only backstory you get.

James Granger (Matt Damon) — Curator at the Met. Has a wife (and I think one child) at home.

Richard (Bill Murray) — Architect from Chicago. Has a wife or grandchildren or something.

Preston (Bob Balaban) — One reference is made to him being a ballet director.

Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) — British recovering alcoholic.

Garfield (John Goodman) — No backstory, just a John Goodman character.

Jean Claude (Jean Dujardin) — Man who speaks French and has a family.

Hopefully this drives home my point that we literally know nothing about any of these characters. Which is, you know, bad.

George Clooney Doesn’t Care About Art 

I have nothing personal against George Clooney. In fact, I actually think he’s a versatile and entertaining actor. But you can’t deny that throughout his impressive list of movies, he has developed somewhat of an ongoing persona — a smooth operator who you always want to trust, even though he usually has his own interests at heart. You know what doesn’t jibe with that character? An unending love for and encyclopedic knowledge of European art. Clooney was credible in his role, but it’s still just a little bit of a stretch picturing George Clooney as an art aficionado.

Always With The Soviets

1944 and 1945 were arguably the last years to date in which the United States and the Soviet Union were, in almost all respects, allies. Yes, there were underlying political tensions, but we were fighting the same common enemy. And yet the movie still sees it necessary to create an adversarial relationship between the United States and the USSR, as the Soviets are racing to recover the same pieces of art so they can send it back to their own museums. I love rooting against the Soviets as much as the next guy, but there comes a point where you have to wonder if sometimes they don’t behave like godless fiends.

I obviously have some pretty serious grievances with the movie, but it wouldn’t be fair to omit aspects of it that I enjoyed. Most importantly, I should point out that, on the whole, the movie was entertaining and enjoyable to watch, even if it lacked in important areas.

Additionally, as morbid as this sounds, I appreciate that the movie was willing to kill off a couple likable characters. Especially in a friendly PG-13 movie like this, it’s pleasantly surprising to see the movie use a few deaths to make the movie seem more realistic. It also helps that, since we aren’t that attached to any of the characters because there’s no development, the deaths don’t sting as much.

Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) adds a nice dimension to the movie, not just as the only female in the entire film, but in her complex character of a French museum curator who was forced to serve as such under the Nazis in Paris from 1940-1944. Matt Damon’s character is tasked with discovering where the Nazis have hidden the art, but Claire keeps information to herself for much of the movie because she’s concerned he wants to return the art to the United States. Obviously, she ends up falling in love with him and giving him the information he needs, because who can’t resist a man whose face looks like a disfigured penis? Blanchett’s performance is probably the strongest in the movie, although she also was fortunate enough to play the only character with any intricacies.

Overall, in spite of all my misgivings, I did enjoy watching the movie. If you can only enjoy a film if it is objectively “good,” you probably won’t like this, but it’s a fun, generally lighthearted movie about a cool little part of history.