Tuesday 18 March 2014

Movie Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

Inspired by true events, The Monuments Men recounts the story of Allied attempts to find and safeguard precious art as World War Two rages on the battlefields of Europe. The slice of history is worthwhile, but the film is preachy and lacks an emotional focus.

With the Allies preparing to wrest Europe from Nazi control, art expert Frank Stokes (George Clooney) convinces President Roosevelt that a special effort is required to safeguard Europe's artistic treasures from destruction and theft. Stokes assembles a group of art and architecture professionals including James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Walter Garfield (John Goodman). They are joined by Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and English army officer Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). The group receives basic military training and arrives on the Normandy beaches a few weeks after the D-Day landings.

With Hitler still harbouring grandiose ambitions of opening a massive art museum in his name and filling it with stolen loot, Stokes' men use spotty intelligence reports and spread out to various towns to try and locate the hidden caches of art seized by the German army. Granger makes his way to Paris, and connects with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), an art curator who was forced to collaborate with the occupying Germans but managed to keep detailed records of key art pieces. Meanwhile, Jeffries risks his life trying to save a treasured statue in a Belgian church. With the Germans in full retreat, Stokes and his men have to race against time to find and recover the art treasures of Europe.

The Monuments Men is a well-staged spectacle, professionally produced and overflowing with good intentions. But writer, producer and director George Clooney struggles mightily to find the right tone, and never gets there. The film oscillates wildly between juvenile levels of humour, attempting to capitalize on the long-ago reputations of Goodman and Murray, and scenes that desperately overreach to try and grasp some level of solemnity.

In the attempts to find a serious core, the film often veers towards commentary about the Holocaust rather than the artwork, unintentionally deflecting from the purpose at hand. The supposed highlight scene of Stokes face to face with a captured German officer fizzles miserably, Stokes' tiresome speech about buying a bagel from a Jewish cafe in New York going exactly nowhere in the context of the film.

In a case of spoon-feeding overload, on four different occasions Clooney takes to the pulpit to spell out, in lengthy monologues, the importance of the Saving The Art Mission. On three of these occasions, he uses a microphone to emphasize the preaching. In essence the film's audience is given no credit for being able to grasp the importance of attempting to save the world's most famous and valuable pieces of art.

The film also falls short in providing meaningful depth to any of the main characters. Stokes and his team are portrayed as well-intentioned and jocular, but precious little else is revealed about any of them.

Despite the shortcomings, The Monuments Men is passable entertainment, delivered with plenty of pomp and polish. Cate Blanchett as Claire emerges as by far the most interesting character, facing a dilemma about how much she can trust the newly-arriving Americans in uniform, as compared to just-departed Germans in uniform. And the star-filled cast members do their best, stretching the thin and uneven material as far as it will go with pure charisma.

Like a merely average portrait, The Monuments Men is pretty to look at but lacks a sense of lingering resonance.

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