Round up the Crew, Return the Nazi Loot
Everyone looks good in The Monuments Men. I think that’s part of the perk and charm about being in a George Clooney movie. He’ll crop your crew cut just right, perfectly light your skin’s aging complexion. He’ll make you feel chummy and invincible on set. That would all be fine if his latest directorial effort weren’t a World War II film. Instead of peril and suspense you get silly vignettes of middle-aged veterans motoring along to their own internal River Kwai March. There’s a dissonance between the movie Clooney has made and the one we expect to see. Even the bullet wounds shed little blood.
Clooney co-wrote this with partner Grant Heslov and is also the main star. He smiles, narrates occasionally, but mostly lectures. He plays an art conservator named Frank Stokes but he’s really just playing his slick, charming self again, this time with boots and fatigues. He rounds up a group of seven others: curators, architects, sculptors, and historians played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean DuJardin, and Hugh Bonnevile. The seventh is a pursed and scowling SS French secretary played by Cate Blanchett. Their mission is to collect and return as much Nazi-stolen, hidden art- monuments, statues, and paintings- as they can. The story is taken from real missions documented in books by Robert M. Edsel. From winter 1943 to spring 1945, while the boys were fighting to save lives, the graying men were fighting to save culture.
Why is the artwork so important? That’s what President Roosevelt asks Clooney in a dark auditorium who’s pitching him the importance of the mission at the beginning of the film. He may as well be the audience’s surrogate because Clooney is just dying to explain and inform all of us his reasons in a perfectly encyclopedic answer. His movies aren’t so much about entertainment as they are about intellectual edification. There’s always an ethical issue in need of clarity, or a piece of history that needs exposing. His second feature Good Night, and Good Luck was probably his most enjoyable work spreading Edward Murrow’s vision of morality. His last, The Ides of March, was a less successful, more forceful and personal ideological shove about American politics.
This latest entry, however, even with Clooney’s multiple voice-overs and incessant annotations, never relates art’s cultural significance. The statue of highest contention is Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. It’s beautiful, but there’s no backstory. It’s only important to us because we’re told it is and because we’ve seen someone die for it. It’s like stressing Picasso’s cultural relevance to second graders just because his name is Picasso. Clooney banks on his audience inherently realizing the severity of the mission, but assumes that artistic knowledge translates into empathy.
The men split up into pairs during this European Jeep-driven road trip. That’s where some of the comedic hijinks kick in. Alexandre Desplat scores their journeys to stop Hitler’s demonic desire to possess and then burn canvasses with some jolly war-film orchestral hope. There are a few moments when the severity of war is implied, mostly through death, but these scenes are just heavy cosmetic bandages. The mission never feels dangerous or difficult. In fact it’s light and sometimes breezy, floating through the seasons without us ever knowing it.
I think that’s both part of the appeal and the film’s biggest flaw. The Monuments Men is an odd mixture of Ocean’s movies, Inglorious Basterds, and War Horse. There is even a scene at a bar whose composition feels pulled directly from Steven Soderberg’s Ocean arsenal (picture above). But this isn’t as stingy smooth as that casino caper nor is it as violent and perverse as chiseling Nazi scalps. There’s more pastiche and doughy sentimentalism here, like when Clooney presents a grandfather version of himself, silhouetted by sunset. After all, this is a pitch to FDR and his gleaming vision of America. Today’s generation doesn’t see the country like that. Matt Damon is a retired Jason Bourne, he’s not repainting frescos in his spare time.
It’s a shame because there are some good scenes; Clooney just doesn’t have the patience for them to be great. One of them takes place in a German farmhouse, where Bob Balaban and Bill Murray interrogate an SS officer who has smuggled artwork out of Paris. There’s a moment of anxiety as the comedic duo plays serious and gains the upper hand, but it quickly fizzles out. Another one comes with Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, an incongruous pair that subtly and silently bubbles into romantic moment. This is where Tarantino succeeds where others don’t. Clooney would rather move on and keep things tidy, but Tarantino would force Balaban and Murray into that interrogation longer. He’d turn these goofy men into a shadow of Christoph Waltz’s Nazi investigator.
But these acting legends have aged a bit. There is a pleasure to having an All-Star cast (mostly just seeing them together) but it soon fades to disappointment. The good looks only get you so far. No one really gets to be themselves, except, of course, the Nazis. When you’re told that you should care about something, the inspirational rhetoric acts like repellant. You might get some the satisfaction watching this cultural victory, but you lose its reality. The mission to attain these invaluable artworks seems as simple as driving a military Jeep.