Bearing in mind Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for all things World War Two, it is hardly surprising that George Clooney’s latest outing as a director focuses on another of its innumerable stories. It follows the tale of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme, an Allied initiative set up in 1943 that protected and recovered many great works of art from the continental war zone. There will probably come a time when the world is once again engulfed by conflict, and hopefully a similar operation will be put in place. Even if the last few copies of The Monuments Men are under threat, however, it is unlikely that anyone will go out of their way to save them.
My expectations upon its release were high. A film about Matt Damon and George Clooney trekking through Europe to steal back art from the Nazis sounded like a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Saving Private Ryan, a glorious hybrid that I imagined would resemble a more realistic Raiders of the Lost Ark. The news that Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman and Bill Murray were to feature was all the more exciting, and with such a diverse mix of acting talent on display I fully expected a resounding triumph.
In retrospect I ought to have been more cautious. After all, the last time Cate Blanchett donned a European accent and hunted for lost treasures it was in Indiana Jones’ alien-infested funeral march, otherwise known as The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and it is well known that a great cast does not necessarily a great film make.
Indeed it is difficult to remember an opening hour of a film being quite so devoid of, well, anything. In between wondering where exactly Cate Blanchett’s character was supposed to come from and waiting to be introduced to a German who was not just a walking, talking stereotype, the audience find themselves watching strings of short, unfulfilled scenes that lack any sense of direction or continuity. The characters on display are no better, barely more human than the portraits they are trying to save, and far less complex or intriguing.
The writers seem to employ a scattergun technique to storytelling, firing off the characters in different directions as if they hope one might strike lucky and chance upon something worth watching. Dujardin is the pick of the actors, but they all struggle to make the most of laboured writing. It is a film that longs in vain for definition, as it hovers somewhere in that horrible no man’s land that lies half way between comedy and drama but satisfies the criteria of neither. Its charming soundtrack, which echoes the carefree patriotism of The Great Escape, does not help and instead succeeds only in bringing to the forefront of a viewer’s mind memories of a film that was much more enjoyable than this one.
Clooney does succeed in getting his message across. What must be appreciated, though, is that this is largely because the aforementioned message takes up half the script. Protagonist Frank Stokes (Clooney) describes art early on as the ‘foundation of modern society’, and this sets the tone for a film in which characters feel an incessant and inexplicable urge to validate their mission at every opportunity. Subtlety, like realistic Germans, sharp dialogue and any vestige character development, is simply not on the agenda.
And so we are left confronted by a strange film, one that is flat, disjointed and surprisingly uninspiring. It does pick up towards the end with an enjoyable climax, but it is too little too late.
Ultimately, The Monuments Men might be a film about the value of great art, but it is certainly not a film of any great artistic value. The story of the MFAA is one worth exploring, but this film is not the way to do so.