Feature film would have made a better documentary
By Tim Pompey 02/13/2014
The Monuments Men
Directed by George Clooney
Starring: Zac Efron, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett
Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking
1 hr. 58 min.
Imagine, if you will, that a foreign army invades the U.S. via the West Coast, and as part of its mission the commanders in this army plan to steal every significant piece of art, not only from the Getty and other public museums, but from every private collector in Los Angeles. Imagine further that this army plans to go back home and build its own fabulous museum and claim all this art as part of its empire.
That’s the true story behind The Monuments Men. During WWII, Hitler and the Nazis systematically stripped most of the art from Paris, Belgium and other sites in Europe — stole it, in fact, from a large number of Jews.
Even as the war wound down during 1944-45, they took their collections and hid them in secret sites throughout Germany. The job of the Monuments Men, at least in part, was to uncover that art and return it to its rightful owners.
The actual story is much broader than this, involving not just retrieval, but art restoration and systematic protection from both the Nazis and the Allies, neither of which had a problem leveling historic sites throughout Europe. Which brings us head-on to the biggest problem in this film: Can you do justice to such a huge story in a two-hour feature film format? And the answer simply is no.
Not that director George Clooney doesn’t give it a gallant try, assembling an all-star cast, hoping their considerable talents will hold these loose sets of vignettes together. They don’t quite succeed, but they do manage to incorporate an awful lot of humor, as if Clooney, dealing with a grueling subject, has deliberately chosen to keep the mood light.
It seems that Clooney wanted to do a throwback to the old war films from the ’50s and ’60s, where comrades in arms use sardonic comedy to deal with death and destruction. Why else would he include Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban together?
Consider the jokes in this film something like duct tape, applied often and generously. While it does help, it doesn’t mask the fact that this story is much bigger and more complicated than its film format can ever hope to handle.
Fortunately, some of this looseness is resolved in the ending. The team does find a considerable amount of art hidden underground in German mines. It also finds something else that the Allies equally valued: Nazi gold bullion.
The Monuments Men feels like a documentary posing as a feature on the History Channel. Yes, it has an admirable purpose, but does that purpose feed the story? Not in this case, at least not enough to keep it interesting, unless of course you like looking at maps and solving puzzles. I actually do, but in this setting it drains the energy from the plot.
This is one situation where it would be much better to read the book on which the film was based (The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel). Consider as well some recent articles in magazines such as the Smithsonian (which covers the MM’s Italian efforts).
The Monuments Men has a noble goal but can’t pull all its threads together. What you actually end up with is montage. In the art world, montage is highly valued, but a good story calls for more focus.