Monuments Men

George Clooney, mustachioed and with his forelock hanging just so, grins like the Cheshire Cat at a surrendered Nazi. That surrendered Nazi goes from cool and confident to wet-his-pants worried as Clooney’s art-professor-turned-soldier leans back in his chair and smiles that Clooney smile, the tables turned; Clooney’s Frank Stoles is the predator now, and this murderer, this man who burns masterpieces and humans alike, he is the prey. As his Frank Stokes taunts the prisoner, saying someday soon he’ll be eating at his local Jewish deli, reading about how this Nazi has been hanged for war crimes… well, one can’t help but draw up comparisons to the grinning, mustachioed 2009 performance of the one Ocean’s Eleven lead who did not hop on the Clooney train for Monuments Men – Brad Pitt, who drawled his way through Quinten Tarantino’s profane but profound reworking of World War II, Inglorious Basterds.

The comparisons are not kind to Clooney. As an actor. As a director. As an interpreter of material.

This is good material. Based on the true story of a group of art collectors and academics who ventured to the front to stop the destruction of great art and architecture, this story of underdog soldiers with a passion for art who saved some of the world’s most treasured masterpieces sounds like exactly the kind of engrossing material we crave. Even without the incentive provided by the notion that this material might be interpreted by the likes of John Goodman, by the likes of Cate Blanchett, by the likes of Bill Freakin’ Murray, the very ideas this material should wrestle with seem like they should grab us, excite, confound, and startle us.

How, we might wonder, do a group of aesthetes, untrained in the tactics and intricacies of war, walk into an active warzone where young men are dying and Jews are being carried to the gas chamber, and value a painting, no matter how beautiful, above all else? Is this a defensible position? What does that kind of appreciation for artistic beauty amidst the mire of war do to the human soul?

Monuments Men‘s interpretation of these questions is one-sided and horrendously incomplete – the script frequently (okay, ad nauseum) poses the critical question, not by showing the cost necessarily but by actually asking and answering it a whole lot, probably about every twenty minutes by my count: are human lives worth sacrificing for art? And while we all, on a fundamental level, admire art on an aesthetic level and hate to see it destroyed by anyone, least of all greedy Nazis, it would have been intriguing to see this film struggle with that question at all. If it could have seen it from the other side, maybe given one of its Monuments Men an opposing point of view (or an attitude that comprised something other than cheerful and dutiful determination), maybe created a situation where a mission compromised an important military operation in the name of saving a building and this put genuine doubts in the minds of these art collectors. Maybe the film could have, for a second, put the shoe on the other foot, posed an actual problem and not a physical obstacle for these heroes and martyrs that make up the Monuments Men, rather than answering so readily, so fervently, and so incessantly in the affirmative. If it had, this could have been a film that honored both the tradition of great, complex films about World War II and honored the intriguing material upon which the film is based.

As it stands, Monuments Men is an overly chipper, joke-laden examination of fervent art preservation in a time of crisis that pays lip service to the tragic loss of life surrounding the tragic loss of art, but not much more. When the men that make up the team are recruited to the cause in a dialogue-free montage that feels maddeningly rushed and tells absolutely nothing about anyone, each team member greets their invitation to rush overseas, leave their families, and run around trying to steal paintings back from Nazis with a hearty “Oh you rascals” grin. That smug grin persists unfailingly, only being wiped away briefly for something somber or sad. Monuments Men is accordingly airy, light, even convivial for much of its run time, only taking on a sense of gravitas when it comes time for Clooney’s Frank Stokes to examine once again whether this mission is worthwhile, whether it is even sane.

Yes, yes yes! Of course it’s worth it, Clooney argues! (In both his first and last scene, directly at the audience, staring into our eyes, as if we are students in a Clooney lecture on the value of the masterpiece to the human soul.) He doesn’t so much persuade us that this is the case, or show us. This would require patience, diligence, a critical understanding of all facets of the argument at hand, especially necessary in a film that dances around the Holocaust so tepidly – instead, this film is a fervent argument in favor of something, yes, but with all the persuasive power of an all-caps comment on a message board. It’s argument is “BECAUSE ALREADY, JEEZ!” The film strong-arms the audience by talking at them so long about why this all makes perfect sense that we either agree or shut the film out.

As the overbearing score swells under Clooney’s stirring lectures to dismissive presidents and generals about the importance of art; or as jerky superior officers brow-beat the Monuments Men for having the audacity to worry about anything so trivial as a statue or church tower while war rages; or as an aged Stokes (played by Clooney’s own father) cloyingly admires a statue he saved thirty years after fighting has ceased, musing aloud to his grandson that indeed it was all worth it, it’s hard to see any other valid position through all the indigence and privilege. Not that we as the audience couldn’t come up with some merited points to the contrary – it’s just that Clooney, within the text, would rather not entertain those points as anything more than the ignorance of boorish men engaged in their war games without a care in the world for beauty or elegance or higher callings.

The Monuments Men are anything but boorish men. They are wonderful, sensitive men; for one, played by Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, a checkered past is mentioned, but it is just that – a past. Neither his character nor any other struggles with a quandary. Mission: Save art. Crack wise. Mourn. Save more art. These are their only settings.

Only Blanchett hems and haws over anything – she is trapped in her own side film with Matt Damon, who spends almost the entire plot stranded in Paris, far from the action or the important discoveries or anything significant at all. Blanchett plays a Parisian who distrusts the true motives of the curator of the Met, played affably by Damon. This distrust is fair – she refuses repeatedly to hand over important information to the potentially greedy (though this is such a nationalist film that it suggests only Soviets – ugh – would ever be so vain as to keep the things they nobly rescued, ha, yeah right) Americans, who could take all that art back home with them. That is, she refuses right up until, essentially, she forms a huge crush on Matt Damon, who is admittedly still puppy dog cute more than fifteen years after he first played an American soldier stationed on the front. That is the word I would have to use to describe Damon’s James Granger – cute, maybe a little self-depreciating, not great at speaking French. That just about serves to describe every character – cute, if in some cases in an “Awww, old man…” kind of way, and self-depreciating.

The film, through its score and cinematography, evokes everything from Bridge on the River Kwai to Inglorious Basterds to Saving Private Ryan (a comparison that rings so shockingly hollow when Clooney and friends walk onto that same beach weeks after D-Day as if they are having a pleasant afternoon stroll), but the film Monuments Men most wants to be is the art-lover’s Dirty Dozen. Unfortunately, the Monuments Men are misfits in the Dirty Dozen mold only in the fact that they look like John Goodman and Bill Murray and Bob Balaban – old, fat, balding. In that way, they are out of the norm.

As characters, though, to a man, each is such a sainted do-gooder that it becomes difficult to describe any one character in terms that do not describe his occupation or the actor portraying him. Switch Goodman’s and Murray’s characters’ scenes completely and behold the exact same movie. Only Balaban truly stands out – he steals the film as a shrimp with an attitude, forever peeved that he is a private in a uniform meant for a man three times his size. Oh, he is as noble as everyone else, no doubt, but at least he is at turns prickly and tender, a character with more than one layer. His interplay with Murray, whose character otherwise has no defining characteristic outside “affably good-humored,” is a bit forced at times, but ultimately, that interplay forms the heart of the film.

Monuments Men is a film with a heart. It won me over in its own small ways as it progressed. It begins in quite a hurry, aiming to get everyone willingly into uniform by minute ten, missing myriad opportunities to examine why men in their seventies would risk everything for a beautiful fresco, but slowly, it does backtrack, filling little things in, letting little pieces of character slip through, almost as if it was accidental. One scene in particular, a wordless scene set to a haunting acapella [rendition][rendition] of “Have Yourself a Very Little Christmas,” finally wore down my resolve. It is maudlin, for sure, but also so effective at conveying without words what the film never can with them, that I finally began to appreciate these old fogeys as something more than the same interchangeable smart aleck with an art degree.

But if Balaban and Murray and Goodman (who needs their character names really?) and even young Sam, the German Jew, grew on me over time, Clooney’s Frank Stokes never did. I still can’t shake how important he should be to this film, how much doubt or anger or indignance he should have as the leader of this crew on an impossible and potentially insane mission, and how none of that ever shows. Frank Stokes is smooth, heroic, perfect – in a word, he is Clooney. Pitt’s Aldo Raine, a similar leader on a mission, was a hero too, but also a bastard – a man so single-minded in his pursuit of huntin’ Naaazis that he is both admirable and clearly not a pleasant man to hang out with. Pitt (in real life, plenty charming in his own right) is a picture of backwoods determination and self-righteousness directed, in this instance, towards a noble cause – this man is all sharp edges, but all pointed directly at something in need of stabbing, Hans Landa.

Frank Stokes is, in comparison, someone whom we would expect to be an everyman. He is, by profession, a teacher, an inspirer, akin perhaps to Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan. Throughout that movie, Miller’s hand shakes and his color drains at every wartime horror he sees, but Stokes is cool, calm, and collected at all times. In Gravity, as a supporting character, that imperturbable nature Clooney innately possesses was a gift. In a World War II drama, it is a curse. That smile, that unwavering baritone used here to trumpet the importance of art, that forelock hanging just so, it seems like a refusal of the stakes of war, the inevitability but also the tragedy of loss, the idea that sometimes, that loss is not worth it, is not justified.

In the end, Clooney may not be wrong: the real Monuments Men may have been great heroes, the greatest heroes – but in its cool-handed assuredness that its position could not be more convincing, the film Monuments Men is not very convincing in this regard at all.