With The Monuments Men, director/star George Clooney switches gears slightly from the high-minded political meditations of previous efforts such as 2006's Good Night and Good Luck and 2011's The Ides of March, and instead tries to re-capture some of the "caper" flavor of such seminal World War II opuses as The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen. But despite enlisting a fine cast in service of an intriguing concept, the film is beset by problems of both tone and pacing, and marks the rare misfire from a helmer who usually evinces just as much self-assuredness behind the camera as he so easily embodies in front of it.
With a script by Clooney and longtime producing partner Grant Heslov, The Monuments Men is based on the real life story of the special unit sent by the US military into Europe to protect valuable antiquities and artifacts stolen by the Nazis from being destroyed and/or desecrated in the waning days of the second World War. With the set-up playing at times like a period version of the Ocean's Eleven series, Clooney (as scholar-turned-soldier Lt. Frank Stokes) is joined by Ocean's co-star Matt Damon, plus John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Cate Blanchett. And with a lineup like that, it should be smooth sailing, so what happened?
Unfortunately, even with the considerable talents recruited to assist with this mammoth task, the project itself is something of a mish-mash. Too often it steps too timidly, unsure whether it wants to be a crowd-pleasing romp or a sober meditation on the horrors of war. And the truth is, those two goals aren't necessarily incompatible. As John Sturges so ably demonstrated with the aforementioned Great Escape, there's enough room to be both within the same movie. But, for whatever reason, Monuments Men lacks the sure-footedness of such prior productions, and emerges weaker as a result.
Bear in mind that, at relatively light 110 minutes, this is by no means some leaden slog, but certain scenes play out for far too long, while other key pieces of character-building and exposition seem to have been left by the wayside. For example, the entire process of assembling the titular ensemble occurs in a quick pre-credits montage that whizzes by so quickly it fails to drive home what makes these specific people so integral to the assignment. Further, we never really get to see the Monuments Men be the Monuments Men. We never see them act as a team, forging the kind of brothers-in-arms bond necessary to drive up the emotional stakes.
Luckily for Clooney, he's pulled together such a sterling assortment of beloved professionals that we care about them simply because we care about them. We like John Goodman. We like Bill Murray. But that fondness can only get us so far. (I literally went through the entire movie trying desperately to remember the names of Murray and Bob Balaban's characters.) This lack of development has the net result of robbing key relationships of much of their heft. For example, what should be an emotionally resonant moment midway through involving Murray, Balaban, and a record player has little punch because we haven't been given the necessary development to queue it up.
Throughout The Monuments Men, the contention advanced by Clooney's Stokes is that the various pieces of stolen art they've been tasked with rescuing and returning are a symbol of Western civilization, and to simply allow them to be destroyed is akin to erasing the cultures they represent from existence. There's a degree of profundity there, sure, but it's only paid cursory attention by the movie itself. We're repeatedly told how important the mission is rather than having it actively demonstrated to us. With any other project, that oversight might have been forgivable. But when one's entire raison d'être is built around that conceit, that kind of misstep is monumental. C