Movie Review: The Monuments Men

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A team of art experts is compiled during World War II in order to protect important art from being stolen by the Nazis.

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George Clooney, 2014

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is a man on a mission. He’s learned that the Nazis are stealing art all across Europe in order to fulfil Hitler’s plan to build a Fuhrer Museum. The war is winding down, the Nazis are on the run – and they’re taking all the art with them. Stokes is given presidential permission to put together a team of art experts – collectors, museum owners, restoration artists, etc. – to take to Europe and either protect the art from the Germans or take it back from them. The team splits up, with James Granger (Matt Damon) heading to Paris to meet up with resistance fighter and museum worker Claire (Cate Blanchett) and find out what she knows, and other pairs travelling around the picturesque but war-torn countries to track down priceless artworks and save them from destruction, Nazism, and eventually the Russians.

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Another vanity project from George Clooney, this lacks the fun and fizz of its closest relative, Ocean’s Eleven. It may seem strange to compare a World War II film with a Las Vegas heist movie, but there’s a lot of similarities – Clooney collects up all his friends and sends them on an adventure where they get to joke around and try to steal some stuff back from Really Bad Guys. Okay, so Andy Garcia was no Hitler, but I haven’t gotten to the most important parallel yet – both movies are really just framing devices for Clooney and his buddies to mug for the camera. This film pulls together old buddy Damon along with several newer (old) faces – Bill Murray, who isn’t given much to do, Bob Balaban, who might be the best of the old men, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman, the wonderful Cate Blanchett whose character I now want an entire movie about, and Jean Dujardin, who smiles his way though a bland role. They’re almost all bland roles, really. At one point Clooney’s Stokes calls Goodman’s Walter Garfield “a good egg”, which to my mind sums up most of the “characters” in this movie – men’s men who barely emote and storm through WWII without a scratch and with their good will and humour completely intact, and no character development whatsoever.

Tonally, the film harkens back to an era that might be best forgotten. Clooney’s trying to emulate the WWII adventure flicks of the 60s, like The Great Escape, only a) that doesn’t fit the fashion of modern filmmaking and b) he relies too much on the actors’ charm and not enough on story. The narrative meanders so much here that it seems to knock itself off target more often than not. There’s also a kind of white American jingoism that’s hard to ignore. The Americans here are the heroes, going in and rescuing art for the Jews. Clooney’s character has a speech about how wiping out art and history wipes out a culture and a people, and it made me very critical of the obsession with the history of Western civilisation. There’s SO much focus on how Important the white Western European art is to ALL OF HUMANITY, and it borders on the racist frequently. Claire is also the only woman in the movie (and by far the best character thanks to a great performance from Cate Blanchett), a convenient by-product of setting a film in WWII. It’s a boys’ (or aging men’s) own adventure without much adventuring. For such an interesting historical story, the movie has very little to say. The music is great and these are good actors (I went to see Jean Dujardin’s smile, and on that front I wasn’t disappointed), and the film is surprisingly pretty given all the destruction, but this movie is ultimately cheap and empty.

The Monuments Men on IMDb

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