Movie review: 'The Monuments Men'

George Clooney’s new World War II film, “The Monuments Men,” has to be one of the most ill-conceived major studio releases ever.  It’s not exactly a bad film or a hot mess; that would make it much more interesting – and the one thing “Monuments Men” is determined to avoid, at all costs, is being interesting.  It’s pleasant, and very slightly amusing for a few brief moments here and there, but it’s a case study in what happens when the premise of a story is systematically cleansed of all drama.

The premise is that a group of unlikely, mostly older men is rushed through basic training and sent into the European theater of World War II to rescue objects of art from the Nazis, who have been stealing cultural treasures from conquered territories.  Hitler eventually issues an order that the Nazi loot must be destroyed if he dies or Germany falls, so the race is on to save mankind’s cultural treasures from fascist evil.

Except it’s just not much of a race.  The leisurely pace of “The Monuments Men” is almost funny in and of itself, like a meta-satire of how not to make a war movie.  The characters are explicitly told the war is winding down before they even get started.  They traipse through a few prominent battlefields, months after the action is over; the scene where they come ashore at Normandy is clearly meant to be moving, as the music swells and we think of “Saving Private Ryan,” but it’s just a half-dozen old guys tromping across an empty beach, putting their own film solidly in the shadow of both sacred history and much better movies.  

There’s a little physical peril here and there for our heroes, and a couple of them actually do manage to get shot, but director and star Clooney isn’t perceptive enough to do anything with the resulting pathos.  It sucks to wander into one of the last spontaneous small-unit engagements in Europe and catch a bullet, but the movie has nothing to say beyond that rather self-evident observation.  Even the characters themselves remark that their risk and suffering is extremely modest compared to what they boys who fought the war went through, which clashes with a few other contrived conversations about whether the sacrifice of life to preserve art is worthwhile.

That’s the One Big Idea this movie has, and it’s repeated over and over again, as if Clooney is afraid the audience might have forgotten the Huge Statement he wanted to make about how art is civilization, and if we allow it to be destroyed, the victims of barbarian aggression will be not just killed, but erased from history.  He keeps delivering that monologue over and over again, even though only one other, very minor character in the story – a front-line combat officer who says he won’t risk the lives of his men by holding off on bombing any designated historical sites – seems to disagree.  Clooney isn’t perceptive or daring enough to extend that one scene into a reflection on the modern-day rules of engagement that are precisely the opposite of the World War II tacticians who wouldn’t hesitate to bomb a church if there were Nazis using it as a command post.

On the evidence of this movie, Clooney isn’t a very good director – I kept spotting individual scenes that could have been tightened enormously by introducing them in a more energetic manner, or ending them a bit sooner.  But he’s even worse as a filmmaker, because he just had no idea what to do with his potentially interesting concept, aside from endlessly repeating his “art is worth the sacrifice” mantra.  This is an example of the trailer not only spoiling the movie – there’s very little plot to spoil here, it’s just a collection of loosely connected vignettes – but actually serving as a better version of the film, since the trailer implies that our guys will be thrown right into the middle of devastating battles to save the paintings.  That wouldn’t have been historically accurate, but it would have been vastly more suspenseful and dramatic; movies have played far worse tricks with their historical basis for much less valid reasons.  

Or it could have been a madcap screwball comedy, playing up the absurdity of these out-of-shape academics bumbling through the footsteps of the Greatest Generation’s war heroes, but although sleepwalking Bill Murray and John Goodman occasionally wake up to deliver a few gentle chuckles, “The Monuments Men” is too tediously earnest to make fun of its subjects.  The bits where they demonstrate their inadequacy as soldiers are the moments when the film threatens to come to life, but they’re over too quickly, and the comedy is quickly smothered under the soft fluffy pillows of frequent reminders that these men are True Heroes With A Very Important Mission.  There isn’t even enough detail of what they’re actually doing to make a passionate film about art and its students.  And even what little plot-related drama it can muster comes entirely at the expense of one character’s irrational refusal to hand over detailed information that would help these nice old fellows save the art she loves from the Nazis she hates.  Someone needs to tell George Clooney that when the point of a movie is hammer-and-nail obvious, the plot has to be something other than a long, slow, perfectly straight line drawn between the opening and closing credits.

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