Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, George Clooney, Ghent Altarpiece, Hidden treasures, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Madonna of Bruges, Matt Damon, Nazis, Review, Stolen art, True story, World War II
D: George Clooney / 118m
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnányi, Holger Handtke
When you see the phrase “Based on a true story” at the beginning of a movie, there’s an expectation that what you’re about to see really happened, and in the way that it’s portrayed. But the key word is “based”. The word serves as a get-out clause for filmmakers the world over, so that when anyone criticises a movie for its accuracy they can say it’s not meant to be taken as a de facto retelling of events but as an interpretation.
With The Monuments Men, actor/director and co-scripter Clooney has taken a relatively unknown tale from World War II and – forgive the clumsy analogy – used broad brush strokes to bring it to the screen. Playing Frank Stokes, we first see him in 1943 canvassing President Roosevelt about the importance of finding and safeguarding the huge amount of art that the Nazis are plundering across Europe, as well as asking for the military’s cooperation in avoiding unnecessary damage to important historical buildings and monuments. Asked by Roosevelt how many men he needs, Stokes tells him six.
The six men are Americans James Granger (Damon), Richard Campbell (Miurray), Walter Garfield (Goodman), and Preston Savitz (Balaban), plus Brit Donald Jeffries (Bonneville), and Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Dujardin). All six have the skills and the experience Stokes needs to identify, trace and recover the stolen art, and two pieces in particular: Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Splitting up to cover as much ground as possible the men set about tracing various treasures and seeking the cooperation necessary to avoid the continued ruinous bombing of buildings such as Monte Cassino. In this respect, and despite clear orders from Roosevelt, they find themselves rebuffed at every turn. They have better luck tracing the routes the Nazis are using to hide everything, but they still always seem to be one step behind.
In Paris, Granger is put in touch with Claire Simone (Blanchett). She has a detailed list of all the artwork and treasures that were stolen by the Nazis in Paris, as well as who they belonged to and where they were to be taken. Using this list, Stokes and co are able to discover the locations the Nazis chose to hide everything. With the war now drawing to a close they face a race against time to reach the treasures before the approaching Russians.
The story of the Monuments Men and their achievements makes for a thrilling read but on screen it’s a different matter. Clooney and co-scripter (and long-time collaborator) Grant Heslov have fashioned a story from the facts that has all the hallmarks of a rush job. Character development is perfunctory and relies on the actors to fill in the gaps by using established traits: Dujardin flashes the winning smile seen in The Artist, Murray rehashes his bucolic approach to Lost in Translation, and Goodman continues to play the same role he’s played for the last ten years. In a way it’s a clever approach, a kind of cinematic shorthand to help introduce the characters quickly and then get on with things, but other than the fact that these men all knew (or knew of) each other before coming together, we don’t really get to know them. As Stokes, Clooney takes a back seat, giving himself a couple of rousing, authoritative speeches, and generally directing traffic – that’s not a criticism, there is an awful lot of poring over maps and working out which direction to take. Damon and Blanchett struggle to make her initial distrust of Granger credible, while Bonneville’s turn as the plucky Brit using the mission to overcome his drink problem, though one of the (slightly) better performances, is undermined when you realise his drink problem isn’t going to reoccur and jeopardise things.
The movie also jumps about quite a bit as it attempts to cover both time and distance. The events shown take place between 1943 and the end of the war. Some scenes, particularly Garfield and Clermont’s encounter with a sniper, seem included for no other reason than they might prove exciting, but this rarely works out. Clooney tries to instil a sense of urgency, but the timescale defeats him every time. Even towards the end with the Russians right around the corner and the Madonna of Bruges to be rescued, there’s just no excitement to be had. And when the team are put in harm’s way, it’s hard to be concerned because a) you don’t care enough them (see previous paragraph) and Clooney’s direction doesn’t stretch itself enough to provide any tension.
What you have then is a strangely flat movie that never really takes off but which, thanks to both the art and Phedon Papamichael’s wonderful photography, looks good and is handsomely mounted. Clooney does have a good eye for composition, and he uses the camera to good effect throughout but by the end it’s not enough to distract from the disappointment that will have already been felt. There’s also some misguided humour, along with a few too many one-liners (there are times when the movie skirts perilously close to coming across as a kind of Ocean’s Seven). One moment, though, that does deserve a mention: Campbell, having received a recording from his daughter, hears it played over the camp tannoy system while in the shower. As his tears mingle with the water from the shower, it’s an instance of emotional beauty in amongst all that glorious art.
Rating: 6/10 – a missed opportunity, too lacking in focus and without a cohesive script; a great story that will hopefully be revisited at a later date.