Clooney’s recent foray into the writer-actor-director territory has been loaded with success. His Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and The Ides Of March (2011) opened to critical acclaim. Yet Clooney’s latest effort, The Monuments Men, struggles to find a place in this success story.
A team of art experts is assembled during World War Two to track and seize thousands of precious art works stolen by Hitler for his planned Führer Museum. Like many of this year’s awards season favourites, The Monuments Men is based on real life events. But Clooney’s film fails to generate either realism or emotional depth.
The script from Clooney and Grant Heslov (Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides Of March) is calculated to pull at heart strings. While this might succeed if buried in subtleties and astute characterisation, The Monuments Men’s emotional manipulation is transparent. Fatalities and profound reflection are signalled by a sentimental score and predictable close-ups. Composer Alexandre Desplat puts in a respectable effort, instead it is the entire tone of The Monuments Men that feels ‘off’.
From the moment Clooney’s Monuments Men instigator, Frank Stokes, affirms ‘I’ll do my best’, the clichéd dialogue lets us know we know we’re in for a pretty cheesy ride. Stokes assembles a star studded team of six - James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Bob Balaban (Preston Savitz) and Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) - but this talented ensemble has little to work with. As the team moves from location to location, we’re given a series of vast spaces packed with priceless art and an open mouthed cast gawping at the wonders.
Spreading itself too thinly between a vast number of characters, locations and events, The Monuments Men offers minimal character development. Throughout its 118 minutes, little is learned about the individuals who risked their lives to preserve our cultural heritage. Their background and personalities seem generic and interchangeable; their personalities masked by Hollywood smiles, moustaches and poor, understated jokes. As the plot moves along, The Monuments Men feels an increasing waste of a talent. Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone - a French museum curator James Granger interrogates - is the only member of the ensemble able to give her character an edge.
In place of character, we’re given light comedy and feigned sentiment. Yet The Monuments Men is not particularly amusing and the artificial sentimentality combined with limited investment in the characters puts any hope of genuine humour or warmth in the shadows.
Neither does the serious, war zone context generate meaningful jeopardy and peril - even when Granger finds himself standing on a land mine. Interaction with soldiers and combat lacks the kind of realism we’ve come to expect from World War dramas like Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse. A tear-jerking rendition of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas is steamrollered in as a soldier loses his life.
Perhaps more importantly, The Monuments Men fails to make us really care about the missing art work, choosing to skim over the complex, cultural questions and instead giving us simplistic depictions of Nazis burning art with flamethrowers. All of this adds up to an over long, dull account that lacks dramatic punch.
The story behind The Monuments Men is interesting and well-worthy of an earnest drama. But by aiming for the heart rather than the jugular of this story - giving us a lighthearted, faux-sentimental tone - Clooney’s film misses the more important questions surrounding this fascinating series of events. Easy to watch but likely to leave you wanting a detailed documentary - or at least one that steps beyond sentimentality and the patriotic hoisting of the American flag - The Monuments Men is a disappointing addition to Clooney’s filmography.
Running Time: 118 minutes