Monday, February 10, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney's The Monuments Men is a square-jawed, earnest attempt to recreate the feel of a studio system World War II movie, the kind of movie that really should be referred to as a "picture". Based on actual events (and a nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter), the script by Clooney and Grant Heslov follows a group of men led by Frank Stokes (Clooney) who are charged with recovering and returning art stolen by the Nazis in the last days of the War. Stokes assembles a team of experts, including a curator named James Granger (Matt Damon) who is sent to Paris to connect with Resistance elements. The American team also includes an architect (Bill Murray) and two others (John Goodman and Bob Balaban) with more general credentials and Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin make the group a true Allied effort. The action proceeds in fits and starts, with Stokes and the others stumbling around France while Granger builds trust with a woman (Cate Blanchett) who may know the whereabouts of art taken out of Paris.

It isn't easy to dramatize the meaning of a piece of art, and so instead we get speeches from Stokes about the importance of cultural history. We're meant to enjoy the gruff banter of the men as they wait for things to happen, with Murray and Balaban asked to carry the brunt of the comedy. Murray gets a couple of good moments, including his reaction on hearing a message from home, but I'm not sure casting him was as good an idea as it must have seemed at the time. How far could ironic detachment carry one on the battlefields of 1940's France? Bob Balaban fares much better, finding an anger that simmers under his usual reserve. The plot hinges of whether Blanchett's character will turn over what she knows about the Nazi movement of art, and surely Clooney could have found someone not so overqualified to throw herself at Matt Damon. There are so many works of art in play that it's hard to care about one in particular, and the Nazi characters we meet (and some Russians who enter the story late) are just caricatures. The Monuments Men ends with a conversation between Stokes and President Truman and a question that I'm not sure any American President would ever ask of a civilian. Stokes insists upon his answer just as The Monuments Men insists upon the importance of the mission. Clooney's intentions in making this film can't be faulted, but he hasn't found a satisfying way of telling the story. The colors are right, but the brush was a little too big.

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