The critics didn’t like this film any more than August, but this time it’s more understandable, as The Monuments Men has its fair share of flaws.
The Monuments Men is based on the true story of seven WWII soldiers who were assigned to find (and rescue from the Nazis if necessary) and protect pieces of important art so they would not be forever lost to Hitler’s personal collection. The soldiers are led by Lieutenant Frank Stokes, played by George Clooney, who also co-wrote and directed the film. Clooney is joined on the mission by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin. It’s an interesting choice of excellent actors, hinting from the outset (along with the film’s score) at the lighthearted nature of The Monuments Men.
That lightheartedness has its strengths but may also be one of the film’s major weaknesses. How do you make a serious and sometimes tragic war film in a consistently lighthearted manner without leaving the audience wondering exactly what genre of film they are watching? You can have a serious war film with the occasional laugh or an adventure-comedy like Kelly’s Heroes with the occasional serious moment, but a consistently lighthearted war drama feels awkward.
Another awkward part of The Monuments Men is Stokes’ various opportunities to debate the value of art. Is the protection of works of art more important than human lives? The argument of the film seems to be a strong “yes”, that it was all worth the cost. I would have appreciated either more or less debate on this question (i.e. either characters in the film have a greater chance to debate the issues or the point is made without a sermon).
Perhaps the biggest flaw of the film, however, is the chaotic disjointed nature of the writing/editing. While the over-arching story is there in the background, The Monuments Men feels like a series of vignettes involving the seven men searching for art rather than a story that flows from one scene to the next. Some of the vignettes are brilliant and precious (I particularly liked the scene with Murray, Balaban and the young German soldier as well as the final scene between Damon and Cate Blanchett (who plays a member of the French resistance who is asked to assist), but others fall flat. And even the scenes that work would have benefitted from more development.
Nevertheless, despite its many flaws, I actually enjoyed The Monuments Men. The actors were fun to watch and did a commendable job with what they were given. The cinematography was very good. There were thought-provoking scenes to discuss. It just could have been a much better film. I will give The Monuments Men a solid ***. My mug is up.