In the closing years of Word War II, a unit is put together and tasked with tracking down and recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis during their occupation. With the Nazis in full retreat and the Soviets sending their own treasure squads, the Allied team led by Frank Stokes (George Clooney) faces a race against time to protect Europe’s cultural legacy before Hitler invokves his ‘Nero Decree’ and destroys all the stolen artwork rather than let it be recaptured.
With an impressive cast and an incredible true story, “The Monuments Men” has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, working against it is a bitty, episodic structure and a lacklustre script which robs the film of much of its momentum and undermines the good work done by the cast. Perhaps trying to tell too broad a story, rather than being a WWII art history version of “Ocean’s 11”, it scatters the cast and the narrative, leaving little time to give the missions a larger context or sense of cohesion. Despite spending a considerable amount of time assembling the team, no sooner do they start to gel as a unit than they’re split up on separate missions, with varying degrees of focus and success. The end result is a sluggish film which lacks a strong central narrative despite the almost bulletproof premise.
Clooney, as star and director, clearly set out to make an earnest, serious movie about the virtue of risking everything for something other than money. His eye for framing a shot is superb and both the production values and cinematography are excellent, bordering on exquisite at times but no matter how noble the intentions, the life has been sucked out of this story. The cast are, as you’d expect, top notch and do what they can with the material but the script doesn’t give them enough screen time or dialogue to work with and the poor structure and episodic nature stifle them. Such is the quality of the cast though (Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban), that there are still occasional vignettes where everything comes together to shine perfectly and you get a sense of what the film could have been had it been written and directed with a little more energy and, dare I say, fun.
Curiously slow and stiff for a film which has been accused of playing fast and loose with historical fact, it’s hard to shake the feeling that its deliberately worthy tone is the result of having one eye on the awards season than keeping both eyes on the prize of telling a great story.