(February 16, 2014 / JNS) After its release was pushed back two months from prime Oscar-nomination territory, “The Monuments Men,” based on Robert M. Edsel’s nonfiction book, is now in theaters—and the reasoning behind the delay is evident.
As the book follows the mission of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program during World War II to identify landmarks and return art stolen by the Nazis, the movie follows the same mission, but with a smaller group of museum directors, curators, and art historians. Their main mission, or at least what the film makes the group’s mission out to be, is to save the Ghent Altarpiece and Madonna and Child, two legendary works of art. Lieutenants Frank Stokes (George Clooney) and James Granger (Matt Damon) are at the center of the picture, even though the other team members have their moments to shine. Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), an art expert at the Jeu de Paume Museum, also aids the Monuments Men from occupied (and then liberated) France.
Herein lies the inherent problem that recent historical films grapple with: How close to the source material should the dramatizations hew? What’s the right balance between presenting the true-to-life story as it happened, and presenting the story with a bit of dramatic license? In “The Monuments Men,” director Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov veered more towards taking a dramatic license, while keeping some historical details and amalgamating multiple people into several ill-defined characters. The plot is straightforward enough, but the jumping back and forth is disjointed and jarring. Additionally, the attempt to mentally place the events of the film in the timeline of World War II may confuse younger audiences whose knowledge of the war comes from textbooks, lectures, and other films.
“The Monuments Men” can’t quite find its sweet spot or where it stands in the pantheon of World War II movies. There are the humorous bantering moments and the sobering moments of World War II, but there is little acknowledgement of the shades of grey in war. The Allied troops are the good guys, the Nazis are the bad guys, and the French are ambivalent. Stokes is the leader with inspirational maxims, Granger is faithful and wants to do the right thing, German military officials snidely claim they were following orders, and Claire is hesitant, taking time to warm to Granger and his mission. But there’s little backstory about the rest of the cast apart from their recruiting during an opening credit montage, and what is known can only be gleaned from conversations throughout the film—it’s just not enough to fully connect with the characters. Additionally, there isn’t enough time spent with Granger and Claire to show her warming up to the cause, and consequently her character development and emotional changes seem abrupt.
While the film could tackle the realities of the Holocaust, it merely breezes by them, taking pause for several sobering moments. The Holocaust is merely in the background, rearing its head at opportune moments to remind the protagonists of the root of the war and what the Allies are fighting for. But the main focus of “The Monuments Men”—while it is still a World War II film—is the art, rather than the millions who died in concentration camps.
To put it simply, “The Monuments Men” had the potential to be a meaningful and Oscar-worthy World War II film, but failed in that endeavor. On the surface, it has a recognizable cast and a story that understands the importance of art. But the film has little else to offer. It tries to ascribe a story to an aspect of history that doesn’t fit the typical mold, and for that, it suffers.