Monday, 24 February 2014

Movie Review: The Monuments Men

I can see what George Clooney was trying for here, I really can. It’s clear that his intention was to make a film in the same vein of Hollywood classics like ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and thanks to his sizable clout in the film industry he is able to assemble a talented cast capable of handling the promise of that. ‘The Monuments Men’ as a concept is incredible, but in execution the whole thing ultimately just falls apart.

At the height of World War II Frank Stokes (George Clooney) appeals to the US President to commission a battalion of art specialists whose mission will be to go into the warzones in Europe and ensure that the cultural treasures of Western civilisation are not lost to the combat. Stokes assembles his ragtag gang of art experts including James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), and Walter Garfield (John Goodman) who all set out for Europe with the hopes of preventing the Nazis from wiping out some of the most famous artistic expressions in human history.

Very few films are able to assemble a cast of this magnitude and talent without commanding a budget well within the 100 millions, the reason this film is able to do so with a budget half the size is down to the extraordinary nature of the source material and of course to George Clooney himself, who has transcended his acting fame and proved himself to be a great talent in the field of directing. Clooney does however perform double duties here (actually quadruple duties if you include his simultaneous work as screenwriter and producer), as he fills the lead role of Lt. Frank Stokes, the leader of the Monuments Men. The ‘Michael Clayton’ actor is a great lead for the star-studded team and as writer he gives himself some great speeches, which he delivers as excellently as you would expect. Matt Damon, who receives second billing after Clooney, is somewhat lost in the shuffle as the overcrowded film leaves his character’s story as a mere footnote. The great Cate Blanchett (who is the current frontrunner for Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards thanks to her terrific turn in Woody Allen’s ‘Blue Jasmine’) is given disappointingly little to do in the role of Claire Simone, the team’s contact in Paris; the role of Simone poses very little, if any, difficulty to an actress of Blanchett’s calibre.

Cate Blanchett is criminally underused in such a dull role.

Correctly achieving a suitable balance with a large and talented cast like this is very difficult; in order to do so it is important that every character is given suitable screen time to have their story fully fleshed-out as otherwise the film runs the risk of exuding quantity of quality if its characters appear shallow as a result of overcrowding. ‘The Monuments Men’ greatly disappoints in this regard as some characters are given their moment whilst others struggle to retain relevance given their paltry length of time onscreen and sub-par material. This means that Bill Murray and Bob Balaban have the opportunity to present themselves as a pleasingly affable duo only so long as great actors like Jean Dujardin and John Goodman are sidelined with their characters only shown onscreen to pad out the runtime of the film rather than deliver any meaningful enhancement to the narrative.

It seemed to me when I was watching the film that anytime ‘The Monuments Men’ showed signs of delivering on its promising subject matter it would almost always stumble as a result of its dreadful pacing. The way that this film shifts illogically in tone from scene to scene is quite jarring and any momentum accumulated in a stirring speech from George Clooney is almost immediately lost as a result of a scene that drags on much too long without delivering any interesting drama at all. I feel strongly that there may have been more artistic merit in editing the film into a series of focussed vignettes with some characters crossing over into each other’s stories in order to provide context and connection as opposed to the method the film opts for which is to string some relatively brief and less than compelling scenes together into part of an overall story. ‘The Monuments Men’ picks up and puts down is characters just as easily as a child might do with its toys.

The film has a tremendous cast but fails to use them to their potential.

George Clooney’s skill as a director cannot be understated, he has proved himself in the past with films like the excellent ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ and his very impressive debut film ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ which in particular showcased the gift he has for delivering a visually stunning movie and his innovation as he provides some alternate ways of depicting cinema tropes such as the classic split screen. Though it is clear that Clooney is more than capable of handling a project like this I just couldn’t help but feel that his direction of the film was a little tepid. I think his failing was that he abandoned his usual style in the pursuit of what I could only surmise was an impression of Steven Spielberg. ‘The Monuments Men’ at times really felt like it was being helmed by the same man who directed ‘Lincoln’ rather than the one who brought us ‘The Ides of March’. Everything from the swelling score to the heroic characters and the feel good nature of the conclusion all felt distinctly Spielbergian.

There has been quite a lot of hate for ‘The Monuments Men’ since it debuted, some of this is warranted whilst some is a little on the harsher side. To be clear this is not a bad movie but neither is it the one I was hoping for when I first heard about this project; such a promising cast and crew may have never lived up to my hopes but I at least thought that they were capable of doing better than this. ‘The Monuments Men’ is perhaps the first great misstep in the so far terrific directing career of George Clooney; it is a badly managed but well-intentioned piece of filmmaking that falls often on its way to the finish line.

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