In addition to being one of the most reliable, likable leading men in Hollywood today, George Clooney has also managed to create an incredibly respectable reputation behind the camera, as well. He’s earned a reputation as a filmmaker with a keen eye for an interesting story, from the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow to the bizarre life and times of game show host/spy Chuck Barris. And he has found exactly that once again in his latest feature, The Monuments Men. Unfortunately, it’s also a film that doesn’t fully live up to its promise.
Set during the waning days of World War II, the story begins as Frank Stokes (George Clooney), an art historian working at Harvard, is called upon by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to travel into enemy territory and preserve precious, priceless artifacts and works of art from the Nazi forces that seek to steal and/or destroy them. With the help of six other architects, curators, art directors, dealers and sculptors (Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville), and working with an inside woman (Cate Blanchett) working closely with the Germans in Occupied France, Frank risks life and limb to preserve two of the most important things that the Third Reich tried to destroy: culture and history.
Reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11, the real appeal of The Monuments Men is seeing a cast of such incredible performers come together for an adventure -- but at times this strength nearly becomes a handicap. Rather than keeping the ensemble together as the mission is executed across Europe, the plot instead pairs the actors off and sends them to take care of separate assignments. While this is undoubtedly something taken from the true story on which the film is based and makes sense from a real world perspective (splitting up means covering more ground, meaning Clooney stops the Nazis faster), those who paid to see the entire stellar cast work together may wind up feeling shortchanged. The movie does redeem itself in this respect in the third act, and is eventually able to deliver on expectations, but in reflecting on the story as a whole, you wish that the cast would have been a more cohesive unit.
The individual performances really do compel you to stick with the story, though. Each of the stars is given a role with an identifiable personality, from the affable, goofy Goodman to the disgraced-yet-passionate Bonneville, and more often than not the pairings create interesting dynamics, the best found between Murray and Balaban – who weirdly gel as characters who are constantly annoyed with the other. Just seeing all of these great stars come together and put in real performances to tell an inherently interesting story makes The Monuments Men worth at least checking out.
The film has a clear respect for its audience’s intelligence and is aware of its fascinating subject matter, but it also does ask that you meet it more than halfway. While the mission is well established at the start as all of the characters are introduced, it hits some serious pacing problems through the second act of the script – written by Clooney and his production partner Grant Heslov – that at times really drag the movie down. The fractured ensemble also creates a number of storylines to follow, and structure issues create confusion in the timeline and make things occasionally over-complicated.
The Monuments Men is a film worth seeing for its promises alone: it’s an outstanding cast led by a talented filmmaker telling an interesting, true story that’s both worth telling on the big screen because it never really been told before. Due to issues in the scripting and editing process, the movie doesn’t fully live up to all of these promises, but is still a satisfactory adventure worth exploring.