“The Monuments Men”: Ironic Display of the Importance of Art Without the Vitality

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Those expecting The Monuments Men to be a fizzy ensemble caper in the style of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its sequels, replacing Las Vegas and villainous casino barons with WWII-era Europe and Nazis, should proceed with caution. Clooney’s latest directorial feature is neither a caper nor a showcase of its many fine actors, who lend their recognisable faces to a bunch of cardboard cutouts of nobility who wander a flat, even homely, recreation of a devastating war in service of a proudly sentimental message—art is good, is important, and worth saving. No argument there, but that such a profoundly safe and indisputable lesson should be delivered in a work of art that so wastes its own artists is sad irony indeed.

The Monuments Men gathers an impressive cast including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray and Ben Balaban to dramatize the exploits of the eponymous real-life group of service-members who helped protect and recover valuable European artworks looted by the Nazis during World War II. The notion of a group of civilians trained in arts, design and architecture struggling along with soldiers on the European front to preserve culture in the face of violence is ripe with dramatic potential–the actual program the group is based on involved hundreds, not seven individuals. But the film squanders it on a series of unevenly paced episodes that splits its ensemble into disparate threads that are, in essence, identical in narrative content (monuments men go looking for looted art in location A, B or C). Bringing together a cast that charming only to separate them into vaguely related, sluggish vignettes where they’re reduced to glorified cameos seems a strange decision, and yields few rewards. The similarity and lack of narrative drive across the film’s muddle of stories wouldn’t matter if the characters and settings were in any way fleshed out, but all that comes through here is Clooney’s earnest respect for the work the real group was doing. The script, adapted by Clooney and Grant Heslov from Robert M. Edsel’s nonfiction book of the same name, reduces its characters to a series of archetypal ‘good men’ (and Blanchett’s sole good woman in the French Resistance, whose resourcefulness is secondary to her inevitable nudge into the role of possible love-interest for one our heroes), so good and noble that the film seems convinced that no further explication of their humanity is required, except that they come ready-made for dryly witty banter (that fails to be funny, mostly). Each character gets an ostensible character arc; for example, Clooney’s Frank Stokes, who heads the operation, becomes struck with a need to recover a piece that meant a lot to a friend who dies in action, Blanchett’s resistance spy Claire has to learn to trust her American ally James (Matt Damon), who in turn has to resist getting too close to her because he’s got a wife back home, and so on. But it’s hard to get emotionally invested in any of their travails, because even though the rote training montage over the opening credits makes sure the monuments men know each other by the time they’re in uniform, we don’t get to know them even by the time the end credits roll.