re:View: The Monuments Men

MONUMENTS MEN
Written by Michael Bonner.

Charged with finding and protecting humanity’s greatest pieces of art which have fallen into the hands of the Nazis, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) gathers together a team to travel war ravaged Europe during The Second World War.

A secret, untold mission, George Clooney as producer, director and star. Yes The Monuments Men sounds absolutely fantastic… On paper. On screen however, the reality is a little harder to swallow.

The film is much like an aging man who is developing a touch of Alzheimer’s, often forgetting who he is, where he’s come from and definitely where he is going. In one sense Clooney’s film is a piece serious historical accounting, paying various nods to iconic moments in the war, the Normandy beach landings being one. In another it is a humble story about a handful of older guys doing their bit for the war effort.

And in another it is piece of American bravado, complete with a daring race against both the Nazis and the Soviets. Unable to decide on its genre the film feels frustratingly unfocused. It (repeatedly) questions the importance of preserving art, and by extension, human history, whilst probing whether a piece of art can be worth a human life. To which Clooney’s Frank Stokes tells us no… then yes, then no, then yes again.

This attempt to engage with its audience intellectually is valiant and well intentioned, but ultimately winds up being confusing. The film’s insecurity is only exacerbated by its fluctuating tone. One moment can see Hugh Bonneville’s Donald Jeffries gallantly trying to save Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child from villainous Nazis, and the next see John Goodman’s Walter Garfield and Jean Dujardin’s Jean Claude Clermont being out gunned by a small child.

There are some saving graces though. Despite its fractured nature there are moments of genuine emotion, heartfelt camaraderie in the face of danger, all alluding to the true horrors of the war. It also reminds us that it wasn’t just lives that were lost in the conflict, but whole sections of history too. The actors’ themselves are also very good, giving their usual high caliber performances, with the youngest Monument Man, Dimitri Leonidas being of particular note.

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However, as the film flitters from the discovery of one hidden art trove to another, then to another, then to another, leaves the film feeling like a television series condensed down into 118 minutes, covering the necessities but not allowing much depth as a compromise. Its lack of direction also means Clooney’s ensemble spends the majority of its time separated, leaving little room for group development. Equally, the villain Viktor Stahl, played by Justus von Dohnányi appears promising at the start but ends up being underdeveloped and his downfall rushed. Also the will-they-won’t-they relationship Matt Damon’s James Granger has with Kate Blanchett’s Claire Simone is endearing but a bit hollow.

Despite being well made and pleasantly acted, The Monuments Men simply falls short of the mark. Due to its unclear focus it is unable to deliver the historical payload some of its processors do. Disappointingly, its good and definitely profound intentions are marred by its confused tone and subtle (almost too subtle) humor, resulting in a film that feels more like it is exploring what would happen if Dad’s Army had made it on to the front lines, rather than an engaging and thought-provoking drama it clearly aspires to be.

Overall, not un-enjoyable, but equally not riveting, Clooney’s The Monuments Men is well and truly in no-man’s land with a 5 out of 10.

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