By Simon Miraudo
March 11, 2014
One day we’ll discover George Clooney is actually a long-forgotten screen idol from Hollywood’s golden age who became unstuck from time, and all of this will make total sense. Every few years, presumably when his nostalgia gland swells up and commands him to drain its contents onto celluloid, Clooney plots another project that mimics a bygone era of filmmaking and general American greatness. Unwavering bastion of journalistic integrity Edward R. Murrow was the subject of his masterful black-and-white drama Good Night and Good Luck (still Clooney’s finest effort, by a country mile). It was followed by screwball-throwback Leatherheads. Now comes The Monuments Men, a war movie about war movies, so wistfully-hued it might actually be the first feature to be shot entirely through a rose-tinted lens. (He also helmed The Ides of March in between those last two; a cynical political conspiracy-thriller that evoked the positively-futuristic 1970s, at least as far as our auteur’s inspirations are concerned.)
Clooney not only writes and directs but also stars in his latest as Frank Stokes, an art conservationists who, in the dying days of World War 2, compels President Roosevelt to send him into the field and protect valuable, important paintings and buildings from being indiscriminately demolished by the Allies. Also of concern are the innumerable pieces already stolen by the Nazis from churches and museums around Europe, intended for the Fuhrer’s own personal collection. Stokes’ wish is granted, and he even gets to recruit a team of similarly unfit art aficionados to join him (after they endure basic training, of course). Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban make up the rest of the titular ‘Monuments Men’, and they’re paired off and sent on various missions around the continent to locate and recover those pieces that have defined the cultures hit worst by WW2. Matt Damon‘s museum curator James Rorimer gets a sweeter gig: charming the prickly French spy Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) into revealing where the Nazis might be hiding their biggest loot.
Clooney and Grant Heslov’s screenplay is so episodic you can practically see the crease lines. It would have worked better as the best-ever-funded web-series in history, with each individual eight-minute vignette making its way online every few days, freed from the flick’s stop-start pacing. We’d also need to lose Alexandre Desplat’s score too. Though its early aping of such memorable themes from The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven is cute, when the picture gets all serious about itself – its primary, whistle-ready musical cue suddenly made solemn – the entire earnest endeavour transitions completely into self parody. Or, maybe rework the whole thing into an eight-hour miniseries, so we can spend time with each character (most of whom I’ve neglected to name) and the fantastic, under-served actors who portray them. Then, such short-cuts wouldn’t need to be taken with the historical record, and the handful of fatalities might have resonated even slightly. (The story is mostly true, although the characters have been largely fictionalised.)
And yet, The Monuments Men is far from charmless. Even in this highly abridged form – compared to the eight-hour version of my imagination – each cast-member gets to make at least a little bit of an impression (particularly Balaban, ingeniously hired to play a whip-smart, short-tempered little sleuth, and Bonneville, a disgraced British soldier just glad to be part of the team). Clooney’s distillation of the complex issues from a difficult period across sprawling locales might feel reductive. However, he does get to the heart of the matter and convince, in spite of the massive human toll and Europe’s grave sacrifice, that the protection of art and culture matters. Damon’s Rorimer is given a tour through a warehouse holding the countless possessions of the disenfranchised Jews forced out of their homes, each item insignificant to all except its true owner. He picks up a portrait and takes it back to the abandoned, epithet-laden abode it once belonged, hanging it on the wall and calling it “a start.” It’s a genuinely moving moment from a film that only works from scene to scene. George Clooney may be living in the wrong era, but his heart is in the right place.
The Monuments Men arrives in Australian cinemas March 13, 2014.