George Clooney has starred in a lot of good movies and has directed at least five including Monuments Men (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Leatherheads) so we can reasonably assume he knows what he’s doing.
His film spans a couple of genres and references many other films and TV programmes. Firstly it’s a war movie and secondly it’s in the “small group of apparent misfits doing great things through wartime “genre. The most recent example of this is Inglorious Basterds while there are many famous examples such as The Dirty Dozen and The Eagle has Landed. There is also a genre of “isn’t war funny” films and television series such as Hogan’s Heroes and Mash. Indeed, many critics has seen this film is a cross between Hogan’s Heroes and Ocean’s 11.
There’s also more than a sideways glance at Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark with the ideas of stolen antiquities and the dedicated, brave and fearless antiquarian scholar combating the forces of evil in a light-hearted and slightly eccentric way. The final scenes of the stored artwork in Monuments Men are very similar to those in Indiana Jones.
The first thing that makes you think this film is a parody is the music. Alexandre Desplat’s music mimics the jaunty “Hi Ho, it’s off to war we go” music of many of its predecessors but it’s just a little bit too jaunty and all bit too corny. But it does call out the many other movies that have used this particular kind of music to set the tone for the irreverent approach to the war.
When George Clooney’s Lt. Frank Stokes says, “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for”, you begin to think Clooney is taking the piss.
While the objective of the characters in the film, recovering Europe’s lost out from the Nazis, is a serious one, the attitude of Stokes throughout the film, is pure schmaltz. His speech at the beginning to President Roosevelt sets the tone and the final scene where the ageing Stokes takes his grandson to see the Michelangelo, lays it on the trowel.
Lieutenant Stokes spends most of the film on a soapbox mouthing sentiments similar to the ones above, noble certainly, but always pushed just too far, to the point of parody.
The characters are conventional and trite. The Americans are noble spirited and self-sacrificing. The Germans are covetous, duplicitous and evil. The Russians are dumb. It’s got to be a sendup!
Then there’s the other side of the coin. It’s not a parody. It is just a very badly made, badly written and badly acted film. It’s as if George Clooney didn’t turn up to work often enough and consequently left a whole work of serious filmmaking undone. Given that he starred, directed, produced and co-wrote the film, most of the responsibility for this mess must rest with him.
An example of the untidy direction of the film is evident in one of the final scenes when the Monuments Men discover the Michelangelo’s statue in the salt mine. Much of the structure of this sequence of scenes is quite conventional. The Russians are approaching, everyone is ready to leave, someone discovers the statue that been looking for, there are moments of awed silence and finally a mad scrambled to get the statue out of the mine. It’s conventional stuff: baddies coming down the road, goodies scrambling to escape. But Clooney mishandles even this. He doesn’t even stick with the conventions, cutting between the approaching Russians and the departing Americans, let alone find something interesting in the situation. While everybody is frantically trying to wheel half a tonne of marble out of a disused mine, we suddenly cut to the heroes in a convoy happily driving away with a statue on a trailer behind them. It’s as if something was left out during the final edit.
But the scene is typical of the whole film. It any sense of the dramatic tension that must surely have been a lay down misere given the inherent subject matter. It’s also badly structured. In the first part of the film, the Monuments team splits up to pursue different works of art in different parts of Europe. This immediately dissipates any sense of continuity and suspense that could have made the film much more exciting. Why the director did not simply have the team pursuing one work of art, (the Michelangelo Madonna and Child would have been sufficient for the plotline) and get some coherence into the script is hard to understand.
The actors are not really given much of a chance. The only character who stands out is Claire Simon (Cate Blanchett). Working subversively in her art gallery within the German occupational forces, she documents the destination of all stolen artwork, information that she passes on to the Americans. And then, for all her trouble she is thrown into jail at the end of the war for being a collaborator. Now surely this was something interesting that could have been developed, but no. Suddenly, hey presto, Granger (Matt Damon) gets her out of jail after which she effectively disappears from the film. At the very least, they should have taken her along for the ride.
This would have been a wonderful lead into the potential relationship between Clare and Granger. When she invites him round to her flat for dinner and suggests he stay the night, he declines. He is married. He is pure of heart and faithful, like all the Americans in this film. When confronted with acres of stolen gold in one of the mines, no one suggests slipping one into the backpack and taking it home as recompense for their labours. Perhaps a little bit of moral ambiguity amongst the Monuments Men would have made the film a little more interesting