The Monuments Men

Monuments MenNo piece of art is worth a man’s life.

In war, civilization is a casualty.  In World War II, Hitler began by stealing Europe’s treasures and then tried to destroy them.  But Hitler was not the only culprit, the war machine had grown so strong that Allied bombs were inflicting massive collateral damage on historical architecture.  In the first moments of The Monuments Men (2014), the stakes are very well established.  So too is the conflict.  The President pushes back on Frank Stokes’s (George Clooney) plan to send experts into the fray and protect these monuments.  That’s war he says–even though he’d almost certainly have said “c’est la guerre“–but he’s willing to let a bunch of old fogeys try their luck.  Stokes pulls together an international team with James Granger (Matt Damon) the curator at the Met, Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) an architect, Walter Garfield (John Goodman) a sculptor, Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) a French painter, Donald Jefferies (Hugh Bonneville) an Englishman, and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) a short person.  Along the way, the Monuments Men, as they are known, get help from Claire (Cate Blanchett), a French curator, and Pvt. Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a Jewish-German immigrant who helps translate.

The nature and degree to which you will be disappointed by The Monuments Men will vary considerably.  It may be virtually impossible to be wholly satisfied.  At just under two hours, director George Clooney–who co-wrote the script with Grant Heslov based on the book by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter–wielded a ruthless ax in the editing room.  The film was scheduled for release last year, but was pushed forward to February due to post-production delays.

Some, in the kind of overanalysis you typically find only in political reporting, surmised that producers either (a) didn’t want to compete with the crowded award mongers or, worse yet, (b) have expectations set in the audience’s mind that The Monuments Men was actually vying for Best Picture itself.  Then, moving into February, notorious as the take-out-the-trash month in film scheduling, cemented the fear that The Monuments Men was a stinker.  The film itself is the best evidence that Clooney was telling the absolute truth and that editing this film together was a mammoth and ticklish task.  Sadly, Clooney is too good a soldier and couldn’t follow Martin Scorsese‘s example and roll out a three hour version, thus eliminating his chance at making a truly great film.

As it stands, The Monuments Men is a film out of time.  It’s star-studded ensemble, which shares only moments together in one room, is so wide spread that it is virtually impossible to truly love any one character.  It reminds me of those classic war films like The Longest Day (1962) or A Bridge Too Far (1977) that was so focused on explaining what happened and attracting the audience that they forgot how to tell a story or make a tight film.  Both of those films, I might add, came in under three hours with the same assiduity as The Monuments Men was with it’s own two-hour limit.  All of these films are like watching the highlight reel from Band of Brothers (2001), little vignettes of our heroes arriving on a scene, pulling the data or canvases required, and moving onto the next duo or quartet and their scene of investigation or discovery.  There’s no room to breathe.

One scene is particularly egregious in this respect, with a montage between Clooney bringing a wounded man into a hospital–we don’t see their initial encounter or have any clue about the boy–and Murray hearing (via a delivered record) his family sing a Christmas carol.  It is a terrific scene.  If I were a producer and Clooney showed it to me, I would have begged to push the movie back into 2013.  But the editing denies any pay off because there was no set up.  We didn’t see Murray leave his family–the whole The Magnificent Seven (1960) recruitment is virtually wordless and contained shot-for-shot in the trailer–and we didn’t see Clooney pick up the kid “on the side of the road”.  There’s no doubt in my mind that those scenes exist somewhere, but were left behind as casualties to a two-hour deadline.  I can only hope that the film will be reconstituted for a later blu-ray release.

And I do wish for that longer film.  Clooney knows how to present a movie.  The writing is pretty darn good–it’s hard to judge when most of the profound stuff has been rolling through my ears, context-free since trailers began–and the look of it (Phedon Papamichael) is exceptionally good.  There is probably about three re-cap speeches too many where we’re all reminded of what’s at stake here.  There’s also a slight transparency to the script at times where they try to establish two particular talismans (a statue and a panel) to frame their mission.  Never do they actually tell someone not to blow something up.  Finally, Damon’s character is on this parallel mission where he bangs around Paris for a little while justifying Blanchett’s screentime while everyone else is out there in the mud.  It’s like two different films with Damon in Mélanie Laurent‘s part of Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the rest of them in Saving Private Ryan (1998)–and I know I won’t be the only one who sees an echo of Saving Private Ryan in the ending to this film.

See how I start to talk about the part I liked about the movie and rather rapidly fall into things I didn’t like about the movie?  I expect that will be most people’s experience.  While the film looks great and certainly benefits from a fine cast, it simply isn’t allowed to breathe between scenes.  Inglourious Basterds, while not a film I like a great deal, shows that you can have three different sorts of films in one coherent piece.  It’s because, unlike real life, the stories were essentially in parallel that exploded when they came together.  Here, Clooney weaves everyone in and out in a way that lends itself more to a slow-moving miniseries than a two-hour film.

Also, yes, I’ve seen The Train (1964) and it is better.  The three hour version of The Monuments Men would have been even better than that.  But, as I said before, The Monuments Men is like a WWII movie from the 50’s or 60’s.  It wasn’t meant to be tight and organic, it was supposed to do service to the men involved and communicate how things played out.  In that way, it is wholly successful.  However, while I am willing to let such things slide when film conventions were limited by technology and style was different, it’s hard to make the same compromise for a film made today.

Mentioned in this review…

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About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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