George Clooney as Lt. Frank Stokes
Matt Damon as Lt. James Granger
Bill Murray as Sgt. Richard Campbell
John Goodman as Sgt. Walter Garfield
Jean Dujardin as Lt. Jean Claude Clermont
Bob Balaban as Pvt. Preston Savitz
Hugh Bonneville as Major Donald Jeffries
Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone
Sam Hazeldine as Colonel Langton
Dimitri Leonidas as Sam Epstein
Directed by George Clooney
In 1943, the US Army established the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program to protect art and other elements of cultural heritage at risk from war operations and looting. After the invasion of Normandy, a small number of these “Monuments Men” followed soldiers to the front lines where they were to find and rescue lost art treasures even as the war was still going on. It’s an interesting anecdote in a war full of them the first time a major military force bothered to concern themselves with protecting the culture as they went. By focusing on it, writer/director/producer/star George Clooney seems to want to find a new perspective on something big–World War II–by looking at it from a small, specific point of view. Instead, all he’s managed is to make World War II seem small.
Most of that comes down to its hopelessly muddled tone, a morass of light comedy and lighter drama, which suffers from its lack of commitment to either. The fact that these soldiers were often older art historians and other experts rather than run of the mill officers makes for easy humor, which is exactly the path “Men” takes; the easiest one possible, at all times. From Bob Balaban’s forced indignity at being a private (and hating it) to their struggles through basic training, the only thing more lacking that inspiration is a reason to care for any of the characters who are little more than a collection of ticks with occasionally referenced back stories. That sort of thing is passable in a comedy if it’s funny, but its death to drama; even when characters face mortal peril, it never feels as if anything is truly at stake.
“Men’s” failure is not really director Clooney’s fault. As a film, it is splendidly put together with gorgeous cinematography from Academy Award nominee Phedon Papamichael (“Nebraska”) and a true feeling of you are there’ from the art department. For all of the problems which plague the whole, many of the individual scenes play nicely, especially when it pays us the great blessing of stopping its attempts to be funny. But there’s only so much you can do with cliché and by the time a character accidentally steps on a land mine and isn’t sure if he’ll survive, you’ll be wishing you could change places with him. That is entirely the fault of writer Clooney (and his cohort, producing partner Grant Heslov) whose screenplay lets everyone involved down with its errant tone and shoddy pacing.
No one is let down more than the cast who jump on a grenade of their own as they do their all to save “Men’s” floundering story, but achieve little with the sacrifice. Filled with a mixture character actors and movie stars, “Men’s” cast has been impeccably selected and just as completely wasted. To Clooney’s credit, he gives everyone something to do as the “Men” spread out throughout Europe to bet shot at by Hitler youth or try and gain the trust of a beautiful French art enthusiast (Blanchett). And yet nothing they do seems to matter, mainly because we don’t know very much about them except for some odd excerpts of back story which aren’t enough to provide context the film pretends their actions have.
Many of these individuals came home after their service in the war to build the foundation of our modern cultural institutions, becoming museum curators and artistic foundation directors, setting the course for art and culture in the second half of the 20th Century, a legacy as profound as the historical rescues they performed. And a story point which might have given “Men” the sort of weight it’s going for, which means it completely passes on the option. There is probably something interesting with “Monuments Men” about both the true cost of war–not just on us but on our civilization–and how this anecdote grew to have a major impact in our current lives. But you’ve got to work really hard to find it and frankly it’s not worth the effort.