I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go into “The Monuments Men” on Saturday night with high expectations. When you’re adapting a film from a book that has the title “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” there’s obviously a lot of pressure on the director to make sure they don’t butcher an incredible story –– and in this case, a true story. But I guess I should have known Robert M. Edsel’s historical work couldn’t be executed well, seeing as the movie’s star –– Mr. George Clooney himself –– is also its overly ambitious director.
Set in the 11 months between D-Day and V-E Day, at the height of World War II, “The Monuments Men” focuses not on the common soldiers but a team of unlikely heroes –– art historians, architects and curators –– tasked by President FDR to run directly into the line of fire and protect thousands of pieces of art from being destroyed amidst the combat in Europe.
It’s a rescue mission to preserve years of culture during wartime, where survival and the acquisition of resources are of the utmost importance. The six Monuments Men are part of a force that is naturally doomed to fail, which makes their treasure hunt all the more dangerous.
This kind of epic treasure hunt doesn’t translate well to the screen. The beginning of the film starts off strong, as Clooney’s Lt. Frank Stokes, after having his proposal approved by the President himself, jets around the country to recruit members for his team in the exact same suave way conman Danny Ocean does for his team of thieves in “Ocean’s Eleven.”
Asking Matt Damon’s Lt. James Granger out to lunch as he’s restoring a Renaissance painting and sending a letter to John Goodman’s Sgt. Walter Garfield, who’s busy chiseling away at his latest sculpture, is the perfect build-up of anticipation for a heist movie.
So it is confusing when the movie slows down considerably after the formation of the Monuments Men. When you think “treasure hunt,” you picture elaborate planning, high-risk situations and a lot of action. “The Monuments Men” is more of a scenic jog through Europe, as the characters just happen upon caves and undergound mines full of lost art in multiple instances.
They never run into German forces and they never are pressed for time, which may be credible considering the war was ending during their escapades. But it must have taken a lot of hard work for the men in real life to locate these hidden works, and Clooney doesn’t give them enough credit. He opts for more “discovery” scenes than scenes of them planning or running into obstacles.
The light-hearted dialogue is slow as well, which only lessens the real danger of the situation. There’s no quick wit or memorable one-liners that you’d find in other period films like “Inglourious Basterds.”
If the plot is going to be devoid of action, the movie should at least invest in the characters. All of the members of the Monuments Men are fairly likable, but they’re not memorable.
Spoiler alert: if I don’t feel anything when one or more of the characters sacrifices himself in order to save an original Madonna, there’s a problem. I’m not putting all of the blame on Clooney’s directing and screenwriting –– it’s just that the story is too big to waste any time dwelling on the characters.
Cate Blanchett, however, is extremely memorable as the passionate French curator, Claire Simone, even though her role is small.
The thing about adapting historical works –– especially when you have a true story as compelling as that of the Monuments Men –– is that there’s so much material to work with to fit into two hours of screentime.
“The Monuments Men” is lightly entertaining at some parts, but underwhelming at others, and doesn’t do justice for the original team of people who put their lives in danger to rescue over 16,000 original works of art.
ONLY RECOMMENDED IF: You either appreciate WWII history or are looking for something to do on a Saturday night.