Based on a slice of history that was captured by Robert M. Edsel in his book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the film assembles a cast that includes some of Hollywood’s most dependable names to bring this fascinating tale to life. It’s a remarkable story that seems perfect for the big screen, and it has a great cast. Which is precisely why it’s so surprising that the film is such a drag.
It’s the spring of 1944, and as World War II ravages through Europe, some of the "greatest historical achievements known to man" lie in its dangerous path. The Nazis have plundered art collections, looting and hiding painting and sculptures, many of which are intended to end up in Adolf Hitler’s planned Führermuseum. To counter their efforts, a group of middle aged art experts, including artists, historians, and architects, are pulled together and sent to the war zone in order to track down and identify the great works, then rescue them, and return them to their rightful owners.
To play the roles of these art connoisseurs (most of which are loosely based on real people), the filmmakers have recruited an amazing set of actors that includes the likes of Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Matt Damon, with George Clooney himself in the lead and Cate Blanchett portraying a Parisian curator with knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing pieces. But instead of writing three dimensional characters, Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov have chosen to rely on the actors and their inherent goodwill to breathe life into these roles. The attempts at character development are few and feeble, and we don’t really get to see these individuals as anything other than the actors portraying them.
As the men are split into groups and sent off on separate missions (robbing us of the chance of seeing them together for a huge chunk of the movie), the film starts to get increasingly haphazard. Occasionally it seems like a collage of scattered, disconnected scenes erratically put together, lacking the kind of focus and polish you would expect from the personnel associated with it.
Amidst its blend of war, heist, comedy, and drama, The Monuments Men never finds a consistent tone, nor manages to achieve the right mix between its constructs, and eventually comes off as uneven and patchy. The movie lacks the tension, urgency, and suspense that should fuel its unusual adventure; its attempts at comedy simply don’t work; and its triumphs and tragedies have little dramatic impact. It’s a film about art, yet art is the very thing it lacks, both in its execution and more literally in its visuals. Clooney’s repeated sermonizing about how art is "the very foundation of modern society" could perhaps have been more convincingly illustrated if more light was shed on the priceless artefacts at the film’s heart.
The tragedy here is that The Monuments Men could have been a really good movie; it definitely had all the necessary pieces, but it’s in putting those pieces together properly that Clooney has faltered. The film simply isn’t well constructed. Both the movie and its occupants lack personality. It is a fascinating story, presented in an erratic fashion with an odd aversion to specifics, and it attempts to make the case that art is worth dying for without focusing on the art itself. To its credit, the movie does seem well intentioned and earnest, and treats its subject matter with reverence (and it is very likely to inspire you to search for more works on the same topic), but it is ultimately let down by its uneven tone and a subpar script. Yet The Monuments Men still remains watchable, thanks largely to its excellent cast and intriguing story, even though both the story and the cast deserve better.