In his past films, George Clooney has shown himself to be surprisingly deft at working with genre and mood. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a stunning directorial debut that melds comedy, paranoia, tragedy, and drama, and his following works all have a smart, sensible core (although I’ll admit his previous picture, The Ides of March is slightly shaky). Unfortunately, his confident direction is nowhere to be found in his latest film, The Monuments Men. The story is scattershot in structure, narrative, and tone. The premise is fascinating, but Clooney can never seem to find the right angle, and it’s unclear if we’re watching a drama with comedic elements or a rousing World War II picture with moments of tragedy. There’s almost a total lack of cohesion, and while Clooney is occasionally able to regain control of the picture, the best moments rely almost entirely on the performances.
The Nazis are stealing art as they conquer Europe during World War II, and the war is destroying classic buildings. Frank Stokes (Clooney) believes that if the Nazis obliterate a people’s art, they’ve also destroyed their culture and history. Stokes makes his case to the President and is permitted to assemble a small team consisting of painter James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), designer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and composer Prezton Savitz (Bob Balaban) as well as a British officer looking for redemption, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and an American soldier who can speak German, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). The team is split into groups to track down certain pieces of art, but Granger is sent off to work with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a secretary who might know where to find large, hidden collections.
Though the story (based on true events) has a great hook, The Monuments Men sluggishly comes out the gate as it plods through the setup, and then never really bothers to give us proper introductions to most of the “Monuments Men”. We meet them via montage where we see them doing something, Stokes comes by, gives them a smile, they smile back, and now they’re on the team. And before any real camaraderie can develop, the team begins to split off as Granger goes to reconnoiter with Simone, then Savitz and Campbell pair off as do Garfield and Clermont, Stokes goes with Epstein, and Jeffries works solo. Because their missions aren’t given much detail, there’s no explanation why a composer and an architect need to work together other than the fact that they both care about art.
At least there’s chemistry between Balaban and Campbell, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast. For such a phenomenal group of actors, there’s not much repartee between them. No one turns in a bad performance, but since everyone is paired off seemingly at random, it would make sense to put the actors together based on who has the best chemistry. Then again, while Clooney and Damon have been great together in the Ocean’s movies, there’s nothing between them here. They’re supposed to be old friends, but in the first scene they have together, you can almost see the screenplay as they unenthusiastically recite the dialogue.
If there were scenes that did a better job of building these relationships, they landed on the cutting room floor even though there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of story either. Clooney and editor Stephen Mirrione have put together a picture that’s almost completely devoid of momentum, which is especially surprising considering how well the duo has worked together on all of Clooney’s other directorial efforts. The story moves between missions with no rhyme or reason, and scenes awkwardly overlap. For example, there’s a scene where a song plays over the P.A. system where Savitz and Campbell are, but because the music carries over to a different location featuring Stokes and Epstein assisting a doctor in a military hospital, and these settings are crosscut together. The music signals a heavy, dramatic moment, and while it boosts the relationship between Savitz and Campbell, we’re being constantly distracted by Stokes and Epstein helping out in a hospital, which has nothing to do with their hunt for stolen art.
Clooney can never seem to stay on point, and his desire to tell a big World War II story is constantly at odds with the specificity of the mission. There’s an insecurity at work where Clooney apparently feels the need to try and convince the audience why a human life is worth as much as a piece of art. There are big speeches, and some don’t even make sense like when Stokes gives a rallying cry to the Monuments Men even though they’ve already completed basic training and are in Europe ready to go. None of the characters need to be convinced of the mission, but Clooney never trusts his audience to join in the fight.
His solution is to try and have it both ways as he goes for weighty moments of war drama showing the cost of human lives, but then swinging back into some jaunty military music and jokes about accidentally stepping on landmines. Piecemeal, these scenes can be entertaining, but taken as a whole they highlight an entirely confused affair. It’s a film of fits and starts, and it never builds the momentum to draw us into the story.
Considering Clooney’s filmography and the amount of talent both in front of and behind the camera, The Monuments Men is deeply disappointing and endlessly frustrating. Somewhere in between the stuttering scenes, underdeveloped relationships, and schizophrenic tone, there could have been a good movie. There’s no doubt this is a story worth telling, and it’s shocking that someone like George Clooney—a person known for his smarts, finesse, and confidence—struggles so mightily to make us care about this historic and noble endeavor.