When ensemble cast of well known actors and an interesting, but relatively unknown, story from the end of second world war come together to make a movie you have certain expectations. Whether your expectations where based on the careers of the actors, the content of the story, or the direction of George Clooney, there’s a good chance this film didn’t quite live up to your expectations. It certainly didn’t for me. When I saw the line-up and previews for this movie I was expecting something that would be fun and probably only tangentially related to the story of the real Monuments Men (whom, to be fair, I know very little about). What I ended up with was something that would probably be great for introducing a middle/high school classroom to the story of the Monuments Men but not necessarily an entertaining film.
What I now know of the Monuments Men is that they were a group of soldiers who were tasked with preserving and/or recovering pieces of artwork and other items of cultural signficance that were in danger of being destroyed or stolen during the later stages of WWII. In the movie, the MM are a small team of trained artists (sculptors, architects, painters, etc) who are commissioned by the president to protect different works of art from the Nazis. They are portrayed by an ensemble of actors that almost seem fit for another Ocean’s movie: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Dmitri Leonidas (who plays a young soldier who ends up as a translator). Although the actors are all playing individual members of the MM that actually existed, they’re really just playing the concept of the members of the unit. None of their characters really have much back story and are really only identifiable because of the actors who are playing them. It seems like this is a negative thing, but I actually think that works alright because of the way that the movie is put together. For better or for worse the casting and lack of character development made me think that this movie could’ve just as easily been pitched as “Ocean’s 14: The Hunt for Hitler’s Gold”.
The Monuments Men isn’t really a continuous story as much as it is a set of scenes from the larger history of the real life soldiers. We see the group being assembled and briefly trained and instructed then the next hour or so of the cast is split up into pairs completing smaller missions and reconnaissance throughout Europe. To be honest, this part of the movie didn’t really work for me. The humor is mild and somewhat sparse. The joke about Matt Damon’s yoda-like french didn’t really need to be repeated as much as it was and the only other moment I found outstanding was the moment between Murray, Balaban and the young Nazi where they share an awkward smoke. More than being entertaining this patchwork quilt of scenes seems to do a better job at trying to inform the viewer of the tasks and sacrifices that these soldiers made in order to preserve these works of art. Throughout this, the film poses the question of whether or not human lives are worth sacrificing for art (especially as two of the MM soldiers die during the film). Although, it doesn’t really pose the question as much as it tries to impart the idea that, yes, the work is worth sacrificing lives for and, even if it wasn’t, the fact is that lives were sacrificed to preserve art.
The film really is much better when the whole team is together. The pairings are alright, but only for short bursts. The only exception is Murray and Balaban who seem to actually have pretty good chemistry together. I would’ve also rather seen Matt Damon’s character stay alongside Clooney instead of being shipped off to France in order to inevitably flirt with some woman for information (again, we’re sure this isn’t a “Ocean’s” movie?). The other character’s have moments, but suffer from a lack of development that’s similar to the lack of development of the characters themselves. There just doesn’t seem to be any real attainable goal for the characters to try to reach (or for the movie to reach) for quite a while. This really hindered my ability to care about what was happening. Even the scenes where characters died felt more matter-of-fact to me than something I was supposed to care about. Eventually, they are re-united as the MM begins to raid mines where the Nazis have hidden large stores of gold and artwork and the squad is motivated to find a specific piece that one of their men died to protect. As I said, I feel like this is where the movie is at its best, unfortunately it takes them more than half the movie to get there and when they finally do it feels like things are kind of rushed and there’s not enough time left in the film.
Overall, the movie wasn’t really entertaining for me but it does do a good job of introducing the audience to the story of the Monuments Men. The best thing that could probably come of this movie is that it would peak your interest in the art and history enough that you go and learn about it in real life. So basically, this works best as a propaganda film. I wouldn’t spend the time and money to go buy this or see it in theaters, but it’d be worth streaming or renting when it comes to DVD, especially if you’re a social studies teacher looking to pass some time during class.