Every once in a while, a filmmaker uncovers a forgotten chapter of history that simply begs to be adapted to the big screen. Set against the backdrop of the war that shook the entire globe, and containing compelling themes of artistic and cultural preservation, George Clooney's The Monuments Men serves up just such a story. With Clooney's unique penchant for exploring the past, his exceptional talent for delivering multilayered performances, and his ability to assemble a killer cast, it would seem that he hit a home run here before he even picked up the bat. Truth be told, while The Monuments Men is indeed a fine film with some genuinely inspired passages, there are some basic storytelling flaws that prevent it from cohering into a true classic -- at least for now.
The plot centers on a team of Allied art historians and museum curators who go behind enemy lines during World War II to recover some of the world's greatest works of art after they are stolen by the Third Reich. With the war raging in Europe, the Nazis have managed to plunder some of the biggest art collections on the continent. As the Third Reich begins to topple, the German army receives explicit orders that, in the event of Adolf Hitler's death, they are to destroy every work of art in their possession. Determined to prevent centuries of culture from going up in flames, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt approves a proposal by art historian Lt. Frank Stokes (Clooney) to form a task force comprised entirely of art experts; the group will enter Germany, find the priceless paintings and sculptures, and ensure that the works are returned to their rightful owners. With little knowledge of modern weapons or warfare tactics, the ragtag squadron have their work cut out for them.
Sometimes with movies, it becomes difficult to separate our expectations from the reality of what we're seeing. This is why, in some instances, it may be necessary to take in a repeat viewing or two before we begin to see a film for what it really is, rather than what we wish it could be. In the case of The Monuments Men, there are a few good reasons why audiences might purchase their tickets expecting something different from what Clooney and company actually deliver. First and foremost, there's the cast: By putting together an ensemble consisting largely of comedic performers, some may get the false impression that The Monuments Men is an upbeat men-on-a-mission farce (an impression that could be further bolstered by the presence of Clooney's Ocean's Eleven co-star Matt Damon). While the film does have a few welcome moments of levity, it's largely a somber, serious-minded meditation on the need to preserve cultural history in the face of tyranny and oppression. Likewise, with composer Alexandre Desplat's arrangements seeming to echo John Williams' iconic score from Raiders of the Lost Ark early on, it's easy to suspect that we're in for a rousing adventure though war-ravaged Europe.
Yet, for better or worse, neither could be further from the truth; the deeper we're immersed into the plot, the clearer it becomes that screenwriters Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov aren't as interested in quickening our pulses or keeping us in stitches as they are showing us how this disparate team come together in their attempts to achieve a common goal. Had Clooney and Heslov managed to accomplish that feat in a manner that was actually cohesive, perhaps it would have been easier to embrace the film on its own, rather unique terms. Alas, the screenwriters stumble in their noble attempts to give this intriguing story the forward momentum it needs to hook us, and despite some commendable attempts at character development, most of the performances are so muted that they could have been played by virtually anyone. John Goodman and Bill Murray suffer the most in this respect, and while it may be going a bit too far to claim that they are "wasted" in their roles, The Monuments Men certainly could have benefitted from a bit more of their distinctive personalities being injected into the characters. Likewise, the lighthearted conflict between Murray and Bob Balaban's characters seems half-baked at best, although the tender relationship that develops between Damon and Cate Blanchett's initially combative characters feels genuinely earned since we have a good understanding of their backgrounds. The surprise of the bunch is Hugh Bonneville as the troubled member of the team, who sees this mission as his last chance for redemption. His performance is a highlight of the film, and the one that gives this historical tale a human component.
Despite the unconventional structure of the screenplay, Clooney's direction displays a strong talent for creating and diffusing tension at precisely the moments when it's needed most. So while The Monuments Men may be flawed as a men-on-a-mission film, on a technical level it's near perfect, and there are passages within it that approach transcendence. For these reasons and many more, it pays to remember that few classics are recognized as such upon a first viewing. Right now, the movie's flaws appear to outweigh its strengths. But in cinema as in life, time has a curious way of balancing those things out. Given the fascinating nature of this story and the things that the filmmakers actually get right, it will be interesting to see the effect, if any, that age has on our perception of The Monuments Men.