The Monuments Men (2014)
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, so goes the cry, but if you’re a fan of excitement, inspiration and heroic derring-do then film history is littered with tough little numbers set against the backdrop of the 20th centuries second world war. There’s the caper movies like Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen or The Guns Of Navarone where a misfit group of reprobates are set on some suicidal mission, there’s the historical epics such as The Battle Of The Bulge, Midway or The Longest Day which zero upon crucial conflicts in the war’s evolution, and then there’s personal favourites such as Where Eagles Dare, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line which take more unusual approaches to the civilisation threatening conflict, not to mention brilliant films made as the war was actually raging such as Colonel Blimp and a geographical piece called Casablanca. Director and actor George Clooney has rather brazenly thrown his helmet into the melee with his new film The Monuments Men which also treads the path of a mission being undertaken in occupied Europe, based on the non-fiction book non-fiction book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel the initial dossier on this suggested a potentially entertaining star-laden and unusual approach to the material, but I have had my intelligence officers summarily executed by firing squad as they couldn’t have been further from the truth, if you thought the Robocop reboot was bad then there’s a new abomination in town….
In 1943, sustainable progress is being made by the Allies in denying Hitler the victory of his poisonous Third Reich, as the Axis forces are pushed back into Europe and the imminent landings at Normandy signalling the beginning of the end. Despite the optimism Frank Stokes (George Clooney) persuades the US President that any victory will be hallow if the art treasures of Western civilization are vaporized in the melee, either lost through bombing campaigns, through theft and simple greedy looting, or specifically destroyed on Hitler’s insane orders. Pleading the case of a specialist group of servicemen to mitigate the potential cultural catastrophe Stokes is sanctioned to enlist a unit known the “Monuments Men” comprised of art specialists Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) and Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) , architect Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and displaced Parisian museum director Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). In occupied Paris, Claire Simon (Cate Blanchet) is also a curator who is forced into collaborating with Nazi officers whom are assembling the highest pedigree of material for the proposed Führermuseum in Linz,when they’re not diverting pieces to the personal estates of senior commanders like Herman Goering, much to her embittered disgust. Frustrated by the good guys refusal to adopt their tactical options for the sake of preserving architecture Granger and his crew’s mission becomes more urgent as the war escalates and German units retreat to the homeland, with vengeance laced orders from the Führer himself to torch every item of artistic merit as the Allies slowly set their sights on Berlin….
Cutting to the chase with the efficiency of a Luftwaffe blitzkrieg assault I’ll open up remarks by stating that this is a terrible film, from its unstable structure through to its lacklustre script, from screaming tonal distortions to doodlebug deadly dialogue deficiencies. Crucially it can’t decide whether it wants to be a rompish guys on a mission caper movie or a serious muse on the role of art as a buttress of civilisation, the former is always difficult with the spectre of the holocaust hovering every World War II picture, the latter simply beyond Clooney’s directorial prowess as it clumsily shoves speeches into characters mouths and quite frankly treats the audience as idiots. If someone can explain to me how you can cast someone as intrinsically funny as Bill Murray, give him a reasonable volume of screen time and not elicit one, I repeat one single gag then I’d love to hear it, he is completely wasted as is any sense of camaraderie or honor among the fighters or indeed any sense of threat, peril, excitement or animation. Also torturous was Alexanders Desplatt’s invasive and grating score, its one of these intrusive pieces which occupys the ears and tells you what to be feeling, complete with mournful strings and twinkling piano dirges at the sad bits which are almost laughably overwrought. Sacrifices are made but to zero emotional effect, all illustrated by a strafing run of barely radioed-in performances from a cast whom look as disheveled and uncomfortable as their ill-fitting khakis.
The storytelling is scattered like a storm-tossed paratrooper brigades landing pattern, flitting from one character to the next across the theatre eliciting zero tension or excitement, so with one Macguffin art-piece exception aside there is no idea of any mission, or what this unit was formed to achieve and the stakes that are involved, if you’re aiming for comedy then you need an ammunition of gags, if you’re scoping for drama then you need some emotional investment in character and situation. Toward the end of the piece the dramatic crescendos are reached by I kid you not discovering a mine, a dramatic achievement roughly on par with opening a door or painting a wall, when you’d think that an event with the scope of a world goddamn war might have more to offer in terms of drama and conflict. There is one moment, at a push, where the film came alive, when Blanchett is interrogated by a SS goon in her apartment and you see the calibre of her acting as the sheer terror of her situation crosses her face, but that aside she like all the other characters is fundamentally underwritten, a thin gruel of commitment in this sloppy, choppy mess. Clooney has proved his mettle in the directors chair before, but usually with character driven, modest scale pieces such as Good Night & Good Luck, and one senses that the sheer of a sprawling World War II epic was simply beyond his prowess, and he has singularly failed in every facet of his campaign. Like an Anne Frank request for drumming lessons, this is one to avoid at all costs;