“Noble failure” is the best way to describe The Monuments Men, director and star George Clooney’s new World War II drama. Noble because the story the film tells is absolutely an important one, and also because Clooney attempts to present an old-fashioned, earnest tale of heroism that is sorely needed in these cynical times. But the movie ultimately fails because the director cannot keep a tight grip on the narrative and the tone, resulting in a sprawling, ramshackle mess whose positive attributes cannot overcome its many weaknesses.
Who were the Monuments Men? According to the book by Robert Edsel on which the film is based, they were a group of art historians, museum curators and other like-minded individuals who went voluntarily to the front lines of World War II in Europe – long after many of them were of fighting age or shape – to track down and reclaim the countless numbers of works of art that had been stolen by the Third Reich, either from museums or private collectors. With the Nazis in retreat, the task of the Monuments Men – as the team was called – became even more urgent as the Germans were destroying everything in their wake as they fled.
The movie creates fictionalized versions or composites of real members of the Monuments Men, starting with Frank Stokes (Clooney), a Harvard art historian who, as the film opens, makes the case to President Roosevelt that 1,000 years of human culture is in danger of being lost unless action is taken. With the president’s approval, Stokes assembles a team that includes art restoration expert James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), art historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and an Englishman named Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), whose job is never quite made clear.
The film’s first problem surfaces right away: the paragraph I wrote above is pretty much all we get to know about the seven Monuments Men (we also find out that Jeffries is an alcoholic with unresolved father issues – but that’s all that defines him). Little attempt is made to flesh out these men at all, save for a passing reference here or there to their lives back home. We know that Murray has grandkids; we learn that Damon is a faithful husband. But these are just broad strokes that don’t add any real depth or complexity to these men. They go about their mission, once they get to Europe, with hardly a complaint, doubt or sense of fear – despite the fact that none of them are exactly what you would call battle-hardened. In fact, we barely even know their names; I didn’t realize that Clooney’s character was called Stokes until about two-thirds of the way through the film, and had to look up Balaban’s in the press notes later on.
To be fair, there have been great war movies that don’t spend a lot of time exploring characters’ histories, and it’s clear from the get-go that Clooney wants to make something in the vein of The Bridge Over the River Kwai or The Guns of Navarone or Kelly’s Heroes – a big, old-fashioned war movie right down to the nostalgic score from Alexandre Desplat. Yet Clooney and Grant Heslov, who wrote the film together, can’t decide if they want a jauntier tone or something with more gravitas, like Saving Private Ryan. They end up with a jarring mix of episodic sequences, some played half-heartedly for laughs while others are meant to be stirring or moving – one sequence in which the team discovers barrels of gold teeth taken from Jews and hidden in a mine seems to have been dropped in from a far more solemn picture.
The movie also lacks a clear goal for the men. In The Guns of Navarone, the German fortress had to be destroyed; the quest of The Great Escape was right there in the title. Yes, the Monuments Men were in Europe to rescue as many works of art as they could, but their objectives are so spread out, so vague (many of the treasures were tucked away in mines or keeps) that the screenwriters narrow it down to two: the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo and the Ghent Altarpiece, a priceless, historic panel painting housed in a Belgian church. There’s little suspense or doubt about whether the men will find either. The movie’s finale seems so anticlimactic that Heslow and Clooney tack on a contrived race to get out of a mine before some Russians show up – but it’s not even clear what will happen if they don’t get out in time.
Also contrived is the subplot involving Granger and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett in a thick French accent), a curator at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris who ends up secretly keeping a record of all the loot that the Nazis move in and out of the place during their occupation. Granger shows up to ask her for her records, which could be key to knowing what was stolen and where to look for it; Simone is so stubborn and unreasonably angry at Granger – she seems to think that the Americans will just steal the art again – that you would almost think she was trying to protect the Nazis. Sure, maybe you don’t trust the Americans, but whose hands would you prefer to have the art in? By the time she abruptly has a change of heart and even makes an attempt at seducing Granger, you have to wonder what the hell the writers were thinking.
I’ve seen three out of Clooney’s four previous pictures as a director (Leatherheads has eluded me, or perhaps it’s the other way around), and he does his best work – in Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March – with tight, small, character-driven pieces. This time around, he attemped to make an epic and just couldn’t get his hands and head completely around the material. The Monuments Men is technically proficient, well-photographed by Phedon Papamichael, and boasting that excellent score. All the principal cast members do the best they can with the thin material they’re given. But it’s edited like a montage of scenes from a much larger piece of material and never takes on a life or energy of its own.
Perhaps The Monuments Men should have been, ironically, even bigger: not a two-hour movie in which the filmmakers try to cram in too much information, too many emotions and too many incidents, but a 10-or-12-hour cable miniseries, with each episode focused on finding a different work of art and the whole thing giving the story and characters room to breathe and develop. That would have been just as noble, and perhaps might have saved this ambitious but deeply flawed film from its own uncertain and disappointing fate.