Movie Review: The monuments men
Directed by George Clooney
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban
It should have been an effortless performance for a man who has made that word entirely his own in film after film, including a couple directed by himself. Be it playing the smooth Danny Ocean (Ocean’s Eleven) channelling that rare but unmistakable star power, Commander Matt Kowalski (Gravity) sailing into the sunset with a joke in the tradition of memorable Hollywood heroes, or even Ryan Bingham finding his feet even as he is sent Up in the Air — George Clooney hardly sheds a sweat doing the heavy lifting.
Where from then this laborious effort and this creaking film, despite the little-known jewel of a story from the greatest war the planet has seen? Playing Frank Stokes, the man who drives the effort and then heads a team retrieving artefacts stolen or being targeted by Hitler’s receding army at the end of World War II, is a role right up Clooney’s charismatic, leadership and, one would say, even political, abilities. The actor-director and co-screenwriter drowns it in not only very cliched characterisations but in very strange and half-hearted flippancy contrasted with amazingly soporific speeches.
The Monuments Team is the nickname for the group, set up with the sanction of the US President, that was officially called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. They would go on to retrieve, as Stokes notes, over 5 million pieces of art, losing a few men. But just as the film never mentions that official title of the group, there is a deliberate effort in the film to keep it all light and funny. There is serious talk, about the “larger goal” of Hitler, of him trying to wipe out “a way of life” — “as if one never existed” — but when Stokes repeats it once too often, it seems more like a justification for the film than for the unheralded heroes of this venture.
Which brings us to those heroes, played down to the last guy by actors who are a delight to watch in their own right. Except for Stokes gently brushing away his young son’s hair and some wisecracks about James Granger’s (Damon) wife, you don’t get any idea of what these men are about. Rather the film plays on their obvious physicalities for a few laughts, including Goodman’s weight, Balaban’s height and Dujardin’s Frenchness. As the book by Robert M Edsel, on which this film is based, points out, they were all men working in the same, rather closed, field of art and art restoration, with quite a few rivalries between them. However, there is not a hint of that. Rather the treasure hunt becomes all about looking for Michelangelo’s Madonna and the Child in a very uncomfortable way.
You can’t quibble with the attention to detail or the way the film brings out that period, not cutting corners in authenticity even when it could have. However, in the larger picture of how the men in the film stick out, this is a patently glossy effort from a man and star who has always tried to be more than a pretty face.
Nowhere is that more stark though than in the case of Cate Blanchett’s heroic French spy, Claire Simone. She risks her life, loses her brother and gives the most valuable information about the lost art but, in the end, comes across as a lonely woman looking for company, even to be kissed. And that’s to not even mention the stock Nazi, with his thin lips and almost invisible eyebrows, who gets the weirdest dressing down by Stokes, that amounts to really nothing. The greedy Russian is luckier. His and Stokes’s paths do not cross.