THE MONUMENTS MEN (review) THE MONUMENTS MEN Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov Directed by George Clooney Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett
Frank Stokes: Who would make sure that the statue of David is still standing, they the Mona Lisa is still smiling?
When it comes to monumental men in Hollywood today, you can’t get much more monumental than George Clooney. The man has carved out a career for himself that is impressive by any standard and oscillates with ease between acting, writing and directing. In his latest film, THE MONUMENTS MEN, he takes on all three of these duties at once and his split focus leads to uneven results across the board. It isn’t that THE MONUMENTS MEN, a film that tells the true story of a handful of older art historians and collectors turned into soldiers in WWII, tasked with finding and protecting the great works of art that were being stolen by the Nazis, doesn’t have the charm and gravitas of your usual Clooney picture; it just doesn’t come together the way that it should, the way that it needs to, in order to convey any sense of deeper meaning. As a result, the film just sits comfortably on the surface and allows us to see a side of Clooney we don’t ordinarily get to; this Clooney is confused.
At the onset of the film, Clooney’s Frank Stokes, who is based on real life art conservationist, George L. Stout, is trying to convince the American government that, as the second world war is coming to a close, it is important to send people into Europe to ensure that history’s greatest cultural artifacts are protected from harm and returned to their original owners. The argument against this mission is that a work of art, no matter how monumental, is not worth losing a human life over. Only we aren’t talking about one work of art here. The Nazis stole thousands of pieces while they were invading Europe and they weren’t afraid to destroy them rather than let them be liberated by the Americans. While losing one or a few pieces is just a terrible loss for the art history world, losing all of these pieces would eradicate such a large portion of humanity’s collective history that rebuilding after the war could seem purposeless. So many would lose an identity that is so engrained in all of us that we wouldn’t even know where to begin. This is one of the film’s more effective points; if you eliminate our history, then it is like we never existed to begin with, which would mean that even though the Nazis lost the war, they would have still won in the end.
THE MONUMENTS MEN does eventually find its footing but it takes the entire first act for Clooney to get there. As this incredible ensemble of actors, from Matt Damon and John Goodman to Jean Dujardin and Bill Murray, are assembled for the mission, the tone is comedic and light. The joke, I suppose, is that all of these men are far too old for combat and yet here they are at basic training preparing to go out into the war zone. It is almost as if they aren’t taking their mission too seriously, and when that mission is also the premise of the film, it is hard for the audience to get behind it as well. It isn’t until death touches them that they seem to start realizing that life can be lost for art and that finding the rest of the missing art is not only important for humanity as a whole, but also to honour their fallen comrades. Once they commit to the task at hand, it is much easier for the audience to do so as well, and THE MONUMENTS MEN subsequently ends up being much more satisfying than it originally suggested it might be. In the end, Clooney demonstrates that art does in fact matter. It just would have been a point better made in a more artfully crafted picture.
How many sheep would you give The Monuments Men?