George Clooney (center) as art conservator turned soldier Frank Stokes plots strategy with members of his team of artists, architects, and preservationists as they race to save the great works of European art from Nazi theft and the ravages of World War II in the (“loosely”) historical drama The Monuments Men.
The Monuments Men looks and feels like George Clooney’s homage to the hokier war movies he and I and everybody else our age watched as kids on TV. Battle of the Bulge. Kelly’s Heroes. Darby’s Rangers. Fireball Forward. The Bridge at Remagen.
Come on. Kelly’s Heroes is hokey. I’m sorry, I love it, but it is. One of its saving virtues is it knows it’s hokey. That’s what Donald Sutherland is doing in there.
Hokeyness is not necessarily a bad thing.
The story director, star, and co-writer Clooney tells in The Monuments Men is intrinsically hokey. Almost all movies about World War II told from the Allies’ point of view are---Good guys versus really, really bad bad guys. Good guys win---as long as you ignore inconvenient truths about some of the things the good guys did to win, like Dresden, which The Monuments Men very peculiarly does. You’d think it would have to come up in a story about saving the great artistic and cultural treasures of Europe from theft and destruction that, for no military reason, we incinerated a city that was essentially in itself a work of art.
Can’t put the whole war in one movie, but that’s a strange omission, considering. Maybe Clooney thought it would throw things off tonally if along with those other movies he had the audience thinking of Slaughterhouse Five.
Those other war movies are definitely referenced, visually, thematically, dramatically, musically. It’s a good way to keep the War in the backs of our minds in a war movie about soldiers who saw very little combat. The Monuments Men tended to get to the scene after the fighting or, now and then, have to get in and out ahead of it. It’s an alternative to resorting to news reel footage. We don’t need to see the battles if we can imagine them and know Telly Savalas is nursing his broken down Sherman into place to relieve Bastogne and drive back Robert Shaw’s Panzers and George Segal is up ahead leading his exhausted platoon in a last ditch charge to chase the Germans off the bridge.
Maybe that’s just me.
At any rate, it’s a good way acknowledging the movie’s hokeyness and half-apologizing for it and also of excusing its fictions. The story is true in that the Monuments Men actually existed, although not as the single, cohesive unit the movie centers around, they really did hunt the stolen and threatened works of art shown and find them in the places the movie shows them finding them in, and incidents like the ones portrayed did happen along the way, just none of it happened to these characters because they’re all made-up. Some are composites, some are wholly invented. But, says Clooney, with his allusions and quotes, we’re working within a tradition here.
Of the movies I mentioned, the This All Really Happened Just Not Exactly in the Way We’re Showing It and Not These Characters aspect of The Monuments Men reminded me most of The Bridge at Remagen, the grittiest and least hokey of the bunch, probably because it’s the one most aware of itself as a war movie, that is as a movie about human beings, good and bad, being forced to make unforgiveable choices and do unspeakable things to one another.
They’re structurally similar and they share a similar flaw that could have been fixed with a slightly bigger budget allowing the casting of a few more stars or familiar character actors who could have relieved the rest of the cast from having to double and even triple duty in scenes in which their characters realistically don’t belong.
In both movies, the plot doesn’t really kick in until at least halfway in. The first part of each are alternately expositional and episodic with each short episode the equivalent of an anecdote that’s part of the of the history behind the plot but doesn’t advance the plot or warrant developing into a subplot of its own.
The result in Remagen, a good movie, by the way, is the main characters undergo some jarring personality changes not entirely explained away by the characters’ being mentally and physically exhausted.
Clooney keeps his characters consistently themselves throughout The Monuments Men, but the movie’s episodic nature still results in a stuttering in the pacing.
Many of the episodes are entertaining and dramatic as stand-alones---an accidental confrontation with a scared and desperate young German soldier that’s defused by cigarettes and the invocation of John Wayne, an emergency visit to a dentist that leads to the recovery of a stolen collection of post-Impressionist masterpieces, among others.
But they interrupt the flow of the main story while having no flow of their own and there’s no character development to offset the lack of narrative drive with an emotional dynamic. We already know the characters as well as we’re going to and the familiarity of the actors playing them makes them seem even more familiar. The effect is like listening to your favorite uncle telling war stories with his buddies at the bar at the VFW. They’re good stories, told well, but you feel like you’ve heard them before.
Maybe Clooney’s models shouldn’t have been those war movies or not just those movies.
Oliver Mannion, who liked the movie “ok”, thinks the story would have been better told as a TV mini-series, like Band of Brothers or From the Earth to the Moon (Neither of which Oliver and his brother have seen. I’ve got to fix that.) with some cross-over character and plotlines and George Clooney’s character connecting each episode to a whole, overarching narrative but with each episode telling a full and complete story of its own.
So, for example, you’d have had:
An opening episode told from the German and French and Italian points of view laying out the Nazis’ schemes and local efforts to thwart them. An episode introducing the Monuments Men and outlining their mission and including their training and recruitment. An episode focused on an undercover Monuments Man in Paris before its liberation trying to convince a wary member of the Resistance who doesn’t trust the Americans not to steal the art the Nazis stole for themselves to show him the list she has of where the Nazis shipped hundreds of paintings and sculptures. An episode devoted to a disgraced and self-loathing Monuments Man who redeems himself trying to save Michalangelo’s Madonna. You get the idea.
All of these stories are told but with significant abbreviation in The Monuments Men.
But I’m thinking another way to have gone would have been to give up on a narrative thread and let the episodes build on each other to create a pattern that once discerned would tell the story.
The model to follow would have been Paris Je t’aime and The Monuments Men could have been an anthology of mini-movies each with its own tone, story arc, cast of characters, and stars.
Along with Oliver, I liked The Monuments Men “ok” too. It’s hokey but it’s hokeyness lies in the uplift that comes from knowing that in the midst of the most horrific and systematic on civilization---on the very idea of civilization---there were people willing to die to save a statue both for the sake of its own beauty and for the culture that had cherished it for over four hundred years.
Of course I don’t really know if Clooney was consciously borrowing from those old war movies. Movies set in Europe during World War II are going to look like each other in that they’re all going to look like Europe during World War II. The shot of Remagen Bridge that looks like a direct quote from The Bridge at Remagen may have been based on the same historical photos the production designers for The Bridge at Remagen worked from. The historical drama I wish Clooney had made more use of as a model is his own more tautly-directed, more tightly-scripted, more suspenseful Good Night, and Good Luck. That movie was also basically structurally episodic but the episodes were woven into each other in a way Clooney doesn’t manage in The Monuments Men.
But then Good Night, and Good Luck also had the compelling figure of Edward R. Murrow and David Strathairn’s brilliantly saturnine portrayal of Murrow at the heart of it. There’s no Murrow-figure or Strathairn-level of acting in The Monuments Men.
As the leader of the Monuments Men, Frank Stokes (based---loosely based, Wikipedia warns---George Stout, the head of the art conservation department of Harvard’s Fogg Museum of Art at the time), Clooney brings heart and warmth and a persuasive intelligence and air of leadership to the part, but history itself works against his being as powerful and narrative-driving a presence as Strathairn’s Murrow.
Another difference is that in Good Night, and Good Luck Clooney didn’t seem to feel the need to prove his story’s historical significance. Here, he doesn’t trust us to grasp the importance of the Monuments Men’s mission and accept that saving these works of art was worth the risk and price in blood. He takes every chance he gets to push that point home and one of the ways he does it is to have Stokes deliver little lectures on the subject every chance he gets. This is after the movie opens with a full-fledged lecture by Stokes, standing in front of a projected map of the European theatre, in which he outlines the progress of the war to Franklin Roosevelt as if the (by the way map-obsessed) President might not have been paying attention to what his armies were up to.
The risible implausibility (and impertinency) is made more ridiculous by the actor playing Roosevelt doing a rotten impersonation. This is inexcusable under any circumstances but especially so when Clooney already had a pretty good FDR impersonator on hand. Pretty good as in he might have been nominated for an Academy Award last year if Daniel Day-Lewis hadn't set the bar impossibly high for anyone else playing a dead President.
I understand why he didn’t, but I think it would have been a kick if he’d let Bill Murray, shown only from the back, sit there with his cigarette holder and quiz Stokes with questions Murray would have made clear with his properly wry tone the President knows the answers to better than Stokes does himself.
But speaking of Murray...
He and Bob Balaban, as Sergeant Richard Campbell and Private Preston Savitz (the ranks are important. The characters are based on real life Monuments Men Robert Posey, an architect, and Lincoln Kirstein, a writer and art connoisseur who was an early American patron of George Balanchine and co-founded what became the New York City Ballet) blend likeably as comedy team playing off Balaban’s fussiness and little man’s defensive vanity and Murray’s infinite capacity for amused and affection tolerance for other people’s insanity, a quality he first revealed as Todd the Nerd on Saturday Night Live and made the most of in his portrayal of FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson.
John Goodman as sculptor Walter Garfield (based on Walker Hancock who, among other works, designed the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial whose Angel of Resurrection I hold dear to my heart for always being there to greet me when I arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on a visit to the blonde at the Blonde Family Manse back in the days of our youth) doesn’t have as much to do and most of what he does riffs on the incongruousness of John Goodman as a G.I. Joe.
His funniest moment comes when Garfield learns the D.I.s have been firing live rounds over his head in Basic Training. His best moment is when the camera finds him sitting silent and still in the back of a truck with a dead comrade cradled in his arms, the unwitting and heartbroken model for his future Angel.
Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville seem to have been brought in mainly to remind us Americans we didn’t win the war on our own.
Dmitri Leonidis makes a quiet but profound impression as, apparently, the one young man in the United States Army. Murray, Balaban, and Goodman are all at least twenty years older than their real-life counterparts were at the time, but the whole supporting cast skews older, an odd thing considering that the War, as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, was a mainly a children’s crusade.
Clooney, though, is just about the right age to play his part, and admirably he lets himself look his age. And as Stokes/Stout, Clooney demonstrates a key to his appeal that I think gets overlooked because he manages it so naturally, his ability to be an Everyman despite his incredible movie star handsomeness. He can play a museum director with a Ph.D., an astronaut, a corrupt politician, a fishing boat captain, a bank robber, or an overwhelmed dad dealing with a pair of out of control daughters, all of whom just happen to look and sound George Clooney.
Matt Damon is an Everyman too but of a different sort. Since he’s more ordinarily good-looking than Clooney---these things are relative---he can be as self-deprecating without to employ as much irony. As James Granger (based on James Rorimer, who after the war became the first director of the Cloisters and then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a whole), Damon plays the closet character The Monuments Men has to a hero, though, of course, being a self-deprecating sort, he doesn’t see himself as one. He gets to go undercover behind enemy lines, meet up with the French Resistance, sneak into Paris, and romance Cate Blanchett, a damned dirty job, but somebody has to do it.
Meanwhile, Blanchett does that thing she does, making us distrust our own impulse to like and sympathize with her. It’s that note of neurotic self-doubt bordering on self-loathing. As Claire Simone, the wary Resistance member who kept track of all that stolen art (based on Rose Valland who really deserves a movie of her own) and who the movie has it is suspected of being a collaborator as thanks for her efforts, she almost seems to suspect herself of being one too. What she wants from Granger, more than she wants his promise that he’ll make sure any artworks he recovers will be returned to their rightful owners, is absolution, as if what she’s done is the opposite of noble and heroic. Of course what she really wants to be forgiven for is not having died in the war. Claire is suffering from a very attractive (to Granger) case of survivor’s guilt.
Although they don’t have any scenes together, Clooney’s reuniting with Blanchett in a movie set in the rubble of World War II brings to mind another, more recent war movie Clooney might rather we forget.
In Steven Soderbergh’s dreary and enervated The Good German, Blanchett and Clooney each gave one of their most unappealing performances. I don’t mean they played unappealing characters, although they did. I mean that neither found a way to bring life to parts Soderbergh seemed determined to treat as part of the rubblized Berlin surrounding them, cold, gray, broken, and almost impossible to imagine as restorable or, basically, as good walking dead. The only energy, fun, and sex appeal in The Good German was brought in by Tobey Maguire clearly having a ball getting away from playing the goody-goody and conscience-oppressed Peter Parker.
Fun as it is to see Murray and Balaban and Goodman at work, they’re old men now, and while many of the real Monuments Men were too old to have been drafted, most of them weren’t too old to serve---Clooney’s, Damon’s, Murray’s, and Balaban’s real-life counterparts were already in uniform when the Monuments Men were formally assembled and the mission got underway in 1943.---and the energy could have used the energy of more stars in their primes like Maguire.
Much as I enjoyed Balaban in the part, I think I might have been more engaged by watching Maguire, playing off a more age-appropriate partner, as the effete little ballet guy who becomes the most gung-ho member of the team.
Balaban gets a laugh when he says, “So, we get to shoot some Nazis?” the joke being that the little ballet guy thinks of himself as a killer. Maguire might not have gotten the same laugh, but he’d given us more of a thrill, and a chill, since Spider-Man can kill as many Nazis as Captain America if he wants to.
In other words, with more members of the cast who looked like they really could have fought in the War, Clooney might not have needed as many old movie references to remind us there was actually a war on.
The…um…maturity of his supporting cast makes me wonder if Clooney might have had another favorite movie from our TV watching kidhood in the 70s in mind along with those war movies. A Western.
That would mean Clooney’s starting to see himself as Walter Brennan.
He’s self-deprecating. But he can’t be that self-deprecating.
At Smithsonian.com: The True Story of the Monuments Men by Jim Morrison. Includes a great interactive map.
Mannion on the Clooney beat: My review of The Ides of March, Watching Souls Curdle.
And speaking of Bill Murray again: My review of Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray's Broad Shoulders.
The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Brett Witter. Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Dmitri Leonidis. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. Now in theaters.