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Movie Review | Clooney’s ‘Monuments Men’ fails to live up to source material

Published: Thursday, February 13, 2014

Updated: Thursday, February 13, 2014 03:02

“The Monuments Men” tells the incredible true story of a group of men in World War II that was first chronicled in Robert Edsel and Bret Witter’s 2009 book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” An unlikely platoon of middle-aged intellectuals — ranging from artists to museum directors to art historians — answer the call of duty and leave behind their day jobs to undergo a special mission. Tasked with working to preserve centuries worth of European culture from the destruction of war, they infiltrate Germany to recapture art from the Nazis, repatriating countless artifacts, including books, paintings and sculptures.

George Clooney plays Frank Stokes, the charismatic leader of this motley crew, which is dubbed the Monuments Men. Starring alongside Clooney is an impressive A-list cast, including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville and John Goodman. With Clooney also pulling double duty as the film’s director (and writer), “The Monuments Men” embodies all the elements of a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. However, it ultimately fails as a film as it attempts to encompass too many different genres — action, thriller, drama and comedy. Throughout the movie, Clooney dramatizes the American military grit and intertwines it with moments of coerced humor that simply come off as painfully artificial — leaving viewers uncomfortable and unsatisfied.

The film has an archaic sensibility to it, following the historical events of a treasure hunt for world-famous art — masterpieces Hitler and the Nazis are intent on stealing. Although the Monuments Men were poorly equipped and never received the full support of the military generals until their first breakthrough, Clooney’s cast of stars faithfully depicts the life-threatening conditions of their mission at the forefront of World War II.

As the Allies battle ceaselessly through occupied Europe, a question raised by Stokes reverberates through these men’s mind: Is it worth trading a human life in order to preserve art? The apparent risks seem to be worth it to the Monuments Men. These heroic individuals tolerate three years of reckless treasure hunting — sacrificing self for country and for a continent’s shared cultural heritage.

The film has its climacteric highs and lows but falls short in all aspects, never reaching nail-biting suspense, catharsis nor comedic value. The film does have an uplifting soundtrack that creeps in when the men are training in the barracks or when they’re basking in the discovery of the looted artworks — but in these scenes the music only seems to overly emphasize the display of patriotic grit. Indeed, “The Monuments Men” ultimately fails to gain much momentum.

Even with a stellar cast of actors, overall the film feels like an unnatural blend of tear-jerking tragedy and slapstick humor, with the acting often stiff and uptight. The script by Clooney and Grant Heslov lacks fervor and does no justice to this pivotal event in world history, instead leaving the audience with a myriad of questions. How was the art originally stolen? How did the Nazis move the art? How did the works get returned to their rightful owners, especially those of whom who were no longer alive from the war? Which pieces were eternally lost or never reclaimed? You would be better off learning about the real Monuments Men from Edsel and Witter’s book.

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