Warning: This Blog Post Contains
The Monuments Men from star/writer/producer and director George Clooney and his co-writer/producer Grant Heslov is a traditional, star studded WWII movie the likes of which were made some ten to fifteen years after the war. Indeed so traditional is it that it does exactly what many of those productions from the past did - it sidelines much of the efforts from the French Resistance and the British army (it's telling that the only British and French actors in the production; High Bonneville and Jean Dujardin, are the first to be killed off thus allowing the American actors the spotlight) Indeed the film immediately starts off on a lie, depicting Clooney's character Stokes proposing The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Programme in 1944 as a result of the bombing at Monte Cassino, when in actual fact it existed some two years earlier thanks to the British efforts in Libya. These contributions from the Allied Forces as a whole should never be underestimated or overlooked and it's shameful and frustrating that the film makers chose to do so here. History accuracy is a real bugbear of mine and I'm not altogether sure what's worse; neglecting to educate people about the work of Alan Turing (as we've seen in reactions to The Imitation Game) or attempting to educate people, yet deliberately placing greater emphasis on some facts rather than others.
Where Clooney's effort excels is in the casting; himself, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett. These are all names that immediately demand our attention, but they're also names that get our expectations up too, and sadly this film fails to deliver upon them. It also doesn't help that, in some instances, the love of art just doesn't ring true with some of the actors on display here. In fact, TV star and comedian Miles Jupp, who has a brief appearance as a British officer, looks more like a curator than some of the big name stars here.
Back in the '70s when the disaster movie reigned supreme as a genre, the likes of Irwin Allen would throw star names at such films because he knew that audiences would instantly buy into their characters and feel something when they inevitably failed to make it out of The Towering Inferno or were lost at sea during The Poseidon Adventure. I think that kind of thinking was on display here too when Clooney thought his audience would feel something when Bill Murray sits teary eyed as his wife or significant other serenades him with a home recording of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', but given we're barely introduced to Murray's character in the first place (and the hasty introductory montage over the opening credits really doesn't help) why on earth should we give a toss about a partner and family we've never even heard of until now? The answer is of course, we don't. The moment doesn't work because, and to quote The Smiths here Mr Clooney, 'You just haven't earned it yet, baby'.
The Monuments Men is a story that deserves to be told and told well, and this cast deserve to have that telling, but Clooney's film does not pull it off at all and we're left with John Frankenheimer's excellent 1964 film The Train as the most interesting telling so far. It's episodic to the point of meandering, tonally uncertain, its laughs are fudged and its drama awkward. The message is however surprisingly clear; a fight will always result in a winner but no one will win if we destroy our culture in the process. Indeed, kudos to Clooney to be so unabashed in his stance on why the real monuments men could, it may be argued, place art before life as that's something The Train preferred to leave as an interesting philosophical conundrum. But then Clooney's always been interested in telling entertaining stories that are about the noble intentions his protagonists have in preserving something of our way of life. At his best this is witnessed in the excellent Good Night and Good Luck, at his worst...yes, it's The Monuments Men.
Despite its disappointment, I safely predict that The Monuments Men will be the film that routinely appears in the Christmas TV schedules for years to come, he film that, whilst sitting cosily in our sofa and armchairs, we mutter "Well I dunno what all the poor reviews were about, this isn't that bad is it?" before falling asleep long before the midway mark stuffed on turkey and booze.