Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett and Dimitri Leonidas; Director: George Clooney
After the recent Lone Survivor and RoboCop, here is another film that throws hues of American glorification. This time, in a war movie that includes a treasure hunt, The Monuments Men is the sympathetic account of the US-led effort to save and preserve the treasures looted by the Nazis, who are bent on destroying them as they retreat in defeat.
Based on a true story and adapted from the bestselling book by Robert M Edsel, the film reveals the factual adventures of a group of art historians, architects and artists who out-manoeuvre the Nazis from amassing the masterpieces for Adolf Hitler’s planned Fuhrer Museum.
The narration begins with art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) being tasked with putting together an unconventional group. He recruits a platoon of crack treasure hunters, who are a jolly good bunch known to have their way with words and daredevil attitude.
The team includes a prudish art expert James Granger (Matt Damon), a famous architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), French art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), art historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and British artist-cum-soldier Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). They are joined by a sprightly youngster, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a German Jew who helps the team as a translator and drives them around.
Once the team decodes a Nazi map, they realize that most of the loot is hidden in mines across Germany. So it all boils down to a race between the Monuments Men and the Nazis, who would burn Picassos rather than have them fall into Allied hands, as well as the Russians, who consider it blood money.
The race is less suspenseful than it is self-sacrificing, inspiring and humane. Awkwardly straddling between immersive realism and carefully set-dressed theatricality, writer-director Clooney fails to inject dramatic tension into this well-intended saga. There is simply none and the actors plod from one pointless scene to the next.
Told in a manner as it happens with vignettes of scenes that takes place all over Europe, the narration shuffles from Ghent in Belgium to Paris to Milan to Normandy, to Saint-Lo in France to Ramagen in Germany to Merkers to Heilborne Mines in Germany to Buges — not settling in any one place in particular for long.
The performances of the A-List cast, most of whom are Oscar winners, are lacklustre. Cate Blanchett as the tight-lipped Parisian curator Clare Simone, gives the most edge to her role, but even her character is held back a bit in her dealings with Damon’s honorable portrayal.
Funnymen Murray and Goodman work within a restrained range for them, while Damon, Balaban, Dujardin and the others are fine, but do not bring anything new to the table. Clooney, on the other hand, has the best monologues.
Visually, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s composition is very classical, making every frame picture-perfect. This would not have been possible without the fantastic contribution of production designer Jim Bissell and costume designer Louise Frogley. Also, Alexandre Desplat’s back-ground score elevates the viewing experience.
But unfortunately, the entire experience with characters talking, smoking and looking at paintings and repeating the entire drill again and again gets a bit tedious. It’s only during the latter half, when action is pumped into the scene does it make the narration interesting, but by then it’s too late.
For action fans, The Monuments Men would be a big disappointment, but it may appeal to history and art lovers.