The Monuments Men
Release Date: February 7, 2014
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: George Clooney Grant Heslov (screenplay); Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter (book)
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchette
MPAA Rating: PG-13
There have been a lot of movie made about World War II, covering a multitude of angles and storylines. So it’s quite impressive that The Monuments Men has found previously unmined cinematic territory to explore. Unfortunately, while the premise is an intriguing and original one, the film itself feels like something you’ve seen countless times before.
The film, which is based on a true story, tells the story of a group of eight art historians empowered by FDR (Michael Dalton) to go into the war zone in the waning days of WWII in order to search for the over six million pieces of art that Adolph Hitler’s troops had stolen in their raids across Europe. Some of the greatest pieces of art were in Hitler’s possession and it was believed that he had given his men orders to torch these masterpieces in the event of his death.
Frank Stokes (George Clooney), the man who convinces FDR to put together this special platoon, assembles a team of middle-aged men with zero military experience. And even though the war is mostly over, there are still great dangers for these men. Their lives are still in danger.
While the film doesn’t shy away from showing that danger, it is less interested in exploring their struggles to adapt to military life than I would have hoped. Their basic training is condensed down to one brief vignette. From there, the film shows them as fairly competent and confident as they travel across a war zone. They even have to save one of their own when he steps on a landmine at one point, a task they all seem surprisingly nonchalant about tackling. Perhaps the real men were equally as stoic and brave in the face of danger, but the film would have benefited greatly from showing how they got to that point.
Instead, it feels more like a paint-by-numbers exploration of their journey. Their story follows a fairly-predictable narrative structure. Their quest to track down the six million pieces of missing art is dumbed down for the audience to focus on two very specific invaluable pieces that become the platoon’s white whales (Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and the Ghent Altarpiece). There are real stakes, but it feels more like a Disney storybook version of their quest than an exploration of the horrors of war and the dangers these men faced.
One of the central questions the film poses is whether or not it’s worth it to risk a man’s life in order to save a piece of art. (In fact, FDR asks Stokes that question directly.) It’s a deep philosophical question without a simple black-and-white answer. Stokes explains that, “If you destroy an entire generation of people’s culture, it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and it’s the one thing we can’t allow.” For him the question is black and white. The film seems to agree with him that it’s worth the risk. I think it could have benefited from a more complex examination of the question, since I highly doubt everyone saw it Stokes’ way.
Despite its overly-sanitized and simplified take on the events, The Monuments Men still mostly works as a piece of entertainment. It is a really strange and fascinating story that the film tells, one that feels very different from your typical war film. And the cast, which is full on big names like Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Bill Murray, is great.
But even with the stellar cast, the film isn’t terribly ambitious. It plays the same peppy, bland song over and over again as the score. The jokes aren’t terribly clever. The pacing and composition of the film feels lackluster. It all works just well enough to keep things moving along, but none of it feels very inspired. It checks off all of the boxes required of it to make it feel like a complete movie, but it does it in a way that makes it more serviceable than memorable. You’d enjoy watching it on a plane, but might feel disappointed if you shelled out $10 to see it in a theater.
If you are unfamiliar with the story of this unique platoon, you may enjoy this movie. But I can’t quite shake the feeling that we might all be better off reading the book it was based off of or waiting for a more in-depth documentary about these men to be made to get the whole story of The Monuments Men.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.