February 6, 2014 by Matt Spencer
When you hear the names George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and John Goodman, one of the first things you think of is that this is a good group of actors. Some of them have Oscars while the others have been nominated for them. They’re respected in their craft, and you expect high-quality performances from them. And herein lies part of the issue that many people will have with The Monuments Men, George Clooney’s fifth directorial film; with such a heavy-hitting cast your expectation level for the film may be a wee bit too high.
The Monuments Men tells the story of a platoon of artistic-minded men who are put together and tasked with locating and preserving artwork in Europe that have been stolen by the Nazis during World War II. A lofty goal to be sure, yet one that is indeed factual as the film is based on actual people and events.
The fact of the matter is that with the big names and the humanitarian premise of the film, what we hope for the film is not what is delivered. What we do get is an interesting story with actors that are not utilized to the best of their potential. Don’t get me wrong; I like almost everyone in this film, and while they all do a good job, there’s just not that much in the screenplay to make any of them really shine.
What compounds this issue is the fact that this movie is more of an ensemble piece rather than focused on any one character. You get great one-on-one relationship development between everyone as they break up and venture across Europe: Murray’s and Balaban’s characters encountering a lost German soldier, Goodman’s and Dujardin’s characters getting shot at outside of a church, Damon’s character trying to win over Blanchett’s. While we see all of them bond together and buy into the mission in both comedic and emotive ways, nothing really sets the screen on fire. I almost felt that other potentially less recognized actors could have just as easily been in these roles.
The bigger story with The Monuments Men is the story itself. Clooney is out to shine a light on this little known piece of the war. While the story is interesting, the film only really scratches the surface of its central theme: Is art more important than a man’s life? You have to imagine now that this is taking place during the middle of World War II. Allied forces have just landed in Normandy, and the main focus is on defeating the Germans–not saving art. Any resources or personnel dedicated to an ulterior objective doesn’t make sense to most military minds when there are Nazis to fight.
While Clooney’s character Lt. Stokes gives several monologues during the film to this central question, I thought it was one or two moments from the film that really illustrated an answer to this question. This is a film that is set during World War II, so it shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to say that people die in this movie. It’s how they die and what they die for that really answers the question. Towards the end of the film Stokes is directly asked this question, and while I won’t reveal the answer, how he responds is made pretty obvious from the events that took place in the film, and I wish there were more of these thought-provoking moments to be had.
Overall, there’s nothing really bad about this film. The performances are all good and entertaining, but they don’t really reach epic proportions. The story of these men and the story of what the Nazis were trying to do are definitely the emphasis as a lot of it really makes you wonder how much artwork we did end up losing to the war. If the worst I can say is that I lament the lost potential for a film like this, then while it’s not great, it ain’t bad either. The Monuments Men gets 3 out of 5 stars.