Frank Stokes (Clooney) assembles a crew of art experts to brave the front lines of war-torn Europe. Once there, a race is on to rescue the continents cultural heritage from both Nazis and Soviets.
George Clooney, it seems, wants The Monuments Men to fill as many jobs as the art-historian/restoration collective that formed the real-life titular team. At times, with its whistling score, it strives to be a men-on-a-mission yarn of great, Nazi-bashing derring-do. At others it feels like a Danny Ocean-orchestrated heist, albeit relocated to the early ’40s with khaki ties. And at others it has clearly signed up for the Important Film Division, all eager and earnest and asking (again and again and again) whether or not a work of art is worth a human life. Is it? IS it? Is IT?... In the end, it is all of these things and none of them. Less Jack of all trades, more master of none.
There are moments, though, that make you realise this could have been great if it had only been more focused. Matt Damon’s Granger hanging a painting in an abandoned Jewish home in post-occupied Paris. Bill Murray’s Campbell hearing a Christmas phonogram from his distant family played over a tannoy while he showers. The discovery of a beautiful thoroughbred in a field by Jean Dujardin’s Clermont and John Goodman’s Garfield — then the discovery of something else…
It’s in the composition of those moments, though, that Clooney falls short. There is no single ‘big job’, just a string of cursory episodes involving his crew largely paired off, therefore limiting any potential group chemistry until the final 20 minutes. The edit is sloppy — at one point thwacking us out of a tense encounter between Bob Balaban’s Savitz and a twitchy young German soldier into the middle of a tête-à-tête between Clooney’s team leader Stokes and Hugh Bonneville’s Brit-with-a-bad-boozy-past Jeffries. And the ‘let’s always have Paris’ pseudo-romance between Damon and Cate Blanchett, on pensive-swan form as curator Claire, feels contrived and pointless.
It is, at least, a handsome work, with some powerful recreations of war-rubble Europe, and of course has a sparkling cast. It just would have made a much better mini-series, where its threads need not have been cut so frustratingly short.
Episodic and never entirely cohering, The Monuments Men has patches of excellence, but is inadequately constructed.