The Monuments Men is a series of anecdotes in search of a movie. Based on one of those World War II true stories full of sacrifice and courage, it piles one scene on top of another, unrelated to each other until it simple reaches the end of the running time. The ensemble cast is superb and deserving of better material and there are some excellent standalone sequences, which deserve the same.
George Clooney’s fifth directorial effort is a sizable step back from the impressive Ides of March and even though it’s tonally different, is deserving of comparison with the equally forgettable and mediocre Leatherheads. In fact, how many of you even remember Leatherheads existed? Unfortunately, The Monuments Men seems to be headed for the same level of obscurity pretty much immediately after its release.
Clooney goes for the kind of Billy Wilder-style meld of comedy with heartfelt dramatic heft as he borrows the tone of much better wartime ensemble comedy dramas like Stalag 17 and MASH. It involves a group of art experts coming together under the moniker The Monuments Men (Who didn’t see that coming?) in order to save as much artwork as possible from the grubby hands of The Fuhrer.
After a very brief set of character introductions, the team immediately disperses to various locations across Europe as the audience is treated to disconnected and episodic short films intercut without much of a sense of structure or consideration for the whole picture.
Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov’s screenplay adaptation of Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s non-fiction book about the real Monuments Men seem to haphazardly bring together their most interesting stories without finding a link that would bring them together as a whole. The scenes lay there as puzzle pieces scattered every which way as they try to sell themselves off as a complete picture.
The narrative lack of unity presents itself right off the bat as we’re deprived from much-needed individual character development and more importantly, the building blocks of the dynamic between the ensemble itself before they go off on their own. To be fair, there are some heartfelt and beautifully executed scenes here but without the emotional and expositional groundwork into these characters, they all stay on the surface.
A scene showing an architect (Bill Murray) crying upon hearing his family singing Christmas carols on a record while stationed in a hellhole in Europe is touching, but would have been a lot more powerful if we had a single scene about his family or any detail concerning his feelings for them.
An emotional montage depicts an alcoholic Brit art collector (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) writing a letter to his father, asking for redemption. This sequence, as well as its tragic conclusion, would have paid off better if there was more than one quick throwaway line beforehand regarding his inner demons.
Another sub-plot in a film full of nothing but sub-plots shows another art expert (Matt Damon) trying to gain the trust of a member of the French resistance (Cate Blanchett) so she could lead The Monuments Men to more stolen art comes with wonky motivations for the characters and a last minute clunky attempt at a romance.
The most powerful scene in the film is a monologue from the leader of the group (George Clooney) to an arrogant SS soldier, delivered with the appropriate amount of scorn. It’s a beautiful moment with plenty of poignancy but why is it even there? How does it fit with the film’s third act, where it’s randomly placed?
With such an impressive cast and a deft eye for the correct tone, it’s a shame that The Monuments Men just cannot deliver as an epic war story. There is an attempt at presenting a thematic argument here: "Is the loss of all of this human life worth it for a couple of pieces of art?" There are some scenes that address the matter but they’re not prevalent enough to let the theme glue the film together.
As far as that important question is concerned, there’s a much better film that addresses it in a more subtle yet somehow more insightful way, John Frankenheimer’s underrated masterpiece The Train. I suggest you to seek that excellent thriller out immediately and perhaps wait for The Monuments Men to be released on streaming services.