The Monuments Men can be divided into two clear halves. The pre-interval session (at least in Indian theatres) is painfully slow, preachy and, at times, too sombre. The post-interval part is where the film picks pace, but even then, cannot really match up to the high standards that George Clooney has set for himself as director of films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck.
The film is based on a true story of an American military platoon, curiously named the Monuments Men, who were assigned to protect and restore pieces of art in Europe from being destroyed or stolen towards the end of World War II. Clooney himself plays the role of Ben Stokes, Harvard University art conservationist, who strings together a team of like-minded art curators, architects and conservators, to undertake this task that requires them to go to dangerous battle areas.
The backdrop is a fascinating piece of history, around which Clooney builds a tableau of events. He has an equally fascinating and versatile set of actors to aid him. The problem is despite this, all he manages to achieve is a lugubrious tedium. That is strange for the accomplished filmmaker that Clooney is. Where The Monuments Men could easily have been a witty yet serious film — pretty much like the 1999 David Miller-directed Three Kings, which ironically stars Clooney — it just dissolves into smoke. It does not behoove Clooney’s stature for the simple reason that it falls short of it.
Even in its funny parts, the moment is either curtailed or adulterated by a preachy note on why it’s important to preserve history. Hitler can destroy generations, uproot men and try to kill their spirit, but that damage can be undone with time, but “if you destroy people’s history, who they are, that damage is irreparable”, says Stokes. It is to salvage this history, this past, that the team braves the war, and not only to protect it from the Nazis, but also the advancing Russian army. Adding to the urgency is Hitler’s infamous Nero Decree that ordered all pieces of art be destroyed if he were to die or Germany were to lose the war.
The ensemble cast supports the film brilliantly. Matt Damon as the art conservationist, Cate Blanchett as the French museum curator, who is at first suspicious of the Americans’ intentions and later helps them locate the stolen art pieces with a meticulously maintained ledger, Hugh Bonneville as the English art conservationist who loses his life trying to prevent Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and Child statue from being stolen by the Germans and John Goodman as the overweight member of the group, all make an impact. However, it is the parts between Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, the only member of the group with a grudge, that stand out for their wittiness. Unfortunately, those are really few and far between.
It is a pity that despite such a talented bunch of collaborators, Clooney is not able to raise the film to a higher plane. It appears that he was too caught in the message to care about the messenger. And what a messenger it could have been.