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Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

The Monuments Men (2014)

Directed by: George Clooney

Premise: Based on a true story, a platoon of art scholars crisscross Europe in the last months of World War II in an attempt to rescue important works of art from the Nazis.

What Works: World War II may be the historical event most frequently dramatized in cinema. It’s no mystery why. The colorful characters, the breadth of the conflict, the staggering loss of life, and the stakes of the outcome have made this period of time a fertile source of stories for motion pictures. But there have been so many films dramatizing or fictionalizing World War II that these movies have come to feel redundant. After pictures like Patton, The Longest Day, Downfall, The Thin Red Line, and Stalingrad (not to mention the many films examining the Holocaust), it may seem that there isn’t much left to say about the war. And that is the accomplishment of the filmmakers of The Monuments Men. The picture brings a fresh approach to the topic and in some ways manages to distill and literalize the epic stakes of the war into a graspable dimension. Part of the reason that the Nazis have been such vibrant villains in cinema (and the template for many villains in epic fantasy films) is that their exploits were not just matters of military conquest. Adolf Hitler’s dream of a Third Reich and an Aryan master race was about resetting the history and identity of Western Civilization. The story of The Monuments Men taps directly into that conflict. As shown in the film, the Nazis seized major art works of the nations they occupied, hoarding them in hidden spaces and destroying the works they deemed to be degenerate, undesirable, or otherwise incompatible with the Aryan myth. As a result the conflict of The Monuments Men, this race to rescue the treasures of the art world, is about saving the legacy of Western Civilization itself and the filmmakers present the conflict of World War II in an new light. The picture also differentiates itself from other war pictures in its humor. Most World War II pictures, and many war films in general, take on a somber and self-serious tone. While The Monuments Men is not a comedy it is easygoing and enjoyable. That quality is partly to do with the main cast, which includes actors such as George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Bob Balaban. In past performances these actors have shown a capability for both comedy and drama, and both of those skill sets are called upon in this film.

What Doesn’t: It’s critical that The Monuments Men has such a talented cast because the script does an insufficient job of characterizing these men. Nearly all of them are underdeveloped and the filmmakers rely on the personas of their performers to fill out the roles. The idea of The Monuments Men is a good one and it is carried out well enough but the plotting of the film is spotty. Many scenes feels disconnected from one another, like a series of random events, and the picture lacks dramatic momentum. The pacing is frequently off. The movie tends to idle and then lurch forward with a montage or an action sequence. Fortunately the good humor and enjoyable performances tend to smooth over the flaws well enough to make the film acceptable.

Bottom Line: The Monuments Men is good but not great. The impressive cast and the potential of the premise makes the execution of this picture seem like more of a letdown than it actual is. The Monuments Men is not a bad movie, merely an average one, but it is an interesting footnote in the pantheon of World War II pictures. 

Episode: #478 (February 16, 2013)