Dumb dealings in Nazi art war

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The Monuments Men (M). Director: George Clooney. Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban. 118 minutes

A dilemma. The Monuments Men have discovered a stash of stolen artworks, secreted by the Nazis in an old copper mine. But the locals have sealed the mine, fearful that the departing Germans will destroy the works as their erstwhile empire crumbles. There's no time to dig their way in; the Russians will be here soon, and will claim the stash for themselves. What's a Monuments Man to do?

The camera pans slowly to Matt Damon, who is deep in thought. Then, a lightbulb moment: addressing the officer in charge, he deadpans, 'Do we have any explosives?'

It's a dumb moment, in a film replete with dumb moments. Clooney has done fine work as a filmmaker, but The Monuments Men is misjudged at almost every step.

It tells the story of a squad of American and British academics and artisans, the so-called Monuments Men, led by Clooney's and Damon's art scholars, who are charged with locating, identifying and preserving important buildings and works of art in Europe during the final days of the Second World War. An intriguing premise, but Clooney's execution is intermittently goofy and cloying and rarely compelling.

Mostly it is disappointing, because on paper this sounds like a gem. In addition to Clooney and Damon, the ensemble cast includes Goodman, Murray and Balaban, comedic actors who are also capable of tremendous gravitas. And there is a certain satisfaction to be had from seeing these actors in frame together.

But only Murray's abilities are capitalised on. As aged architect Richard Campbell he features in two of the film's scarce good scenes: a tense-comedic one in which he affably defuses a potentially fatal encounter with a scared young German soldier; and the film's only genuinely touching scene, in which Campbell weeps in the shower while listening to a recording of his grandchildren singing a Christmas carol.

Goodman and Balaban, like the rest of the cast, are mostly left to spout dumb and unfunny dialogue — Grant Heslov and Clooney's screenplay is a big part of the problem, as it really contains some of the clunkiest dialogue you are likely to hear this year.

It makes an unintentional joke, for example, of a sort-of romance between Damon's James Granger, and Cate Blanchett's Claire Simone, a French national who holds the key to the Monuments Men's mission. Blanchett's measured, deeply-felt performance (Claire served as secretary to an odious German officer, and her brother was murdered by the Nazis) is wasted in this corny, unconvincing romantic subplot.

The film's biggest problem — more than the bad dialogue, more than the lack of tension and plot momentum, more than the heavy-handed exposition that sees garishly annotated maps projected onto walls to explain just where things are at in this pesky war — is its patent failure to sell the importance of the mission.

To be truly engaged, we must be persuaded that the mission is worth the risk to life that it entails. But rather than showing the beauty of art, its power to move and inspire and document and critique a culture, and the great tragedy if it is lost or destroyed, we are treated to lectures from Clooney and his earnest eyebrows, saturated by Alexandre Desplat's saccharine score.

'If you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it's as if they never existed,' Clooney's Frank Stokes implores, in one of numerous such speeches. That's probably true, but The Monuments Men would carry this message far more convincingly if it had succeeded in showing, rather than repeatedly telling, us of the invaluable place of art in our collective history and culture.


Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Monuments Men, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman



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Existing comments

Tim's review is absolutely spot-on. I saw this film last night and winced & cringed all the way through it. Every hackneyed film-school cliche was brought into play ... Even an open air cock-pit scene in a war plane, with the pilot pointing down to the fields and shouting to his passenger 'down there!' Such a brilliant and fascinating story, such a brilliant and glowing cast, such a catastrophic execution of both story and cast.

Donna | 13 March 2014  

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