War films offer a tried and true formula for a no-fail blockbuster: danger, friendship, sacrifice, hope and loss. Many of these classic films - Saving Private Ryan, The Great Escape, Patton - are heart-wrenching period pieces hidden in the bloody battlefields. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men will not be joining the ranks of those classics.
Based on a true story, on top of all of the other atrocities committed by the Nazis, it turns out they were stealing the art of the countries they invaded, too. Their ultimate goal was to take away the countries’ cultures and to exhibit the stolen art in Hitler’s grand project: The Fuhrer Museum. Rather than fight the good fight or take down the camps, our title characters are tasked with finding and returning this art before the war ends and the Nazis destroy it all.
Starring, written and directed by George Clooney, the film has its moments but they are sparse. Having aged famous comedic actors like Bill Murray and John Goodman playing aged sardonic geezers in a youngman’s warzone sounds like a promising comedy, but this is a drama. Characters die. This causes a strange unfocused mix of emotions when a good laugh gets up there. It’s always fun to see two innocent little boys spring to their feet and Heil Hitler… (you had to be there).
The film has about two tear-jerker moments that most everyone has already seen in other war movies, including the bittersweet Christmas letter from home. But beyond these scenes, we learn very little about our characters. After watching the film, I asked myself, “who was Bill Murray’s character?” The answer: Bill Murray. I had to actually look up his character’s name (It’s Richard Campbell). To be blunt, I didn’t see Richard, the architect, grandfather and soldier. All I saw was Bill Murray being Bill Murray, throwing out his ironic one-liners and never anything else. This is fine for fictional characters where the actors can do what they do best. But this is a true story. Was the real Richard the previous incarnation of Bill Murray? Most likely not.
The factor that’s probably working most against the film is how many years of the war it covers. Many moviegoers don’t take into account how long the story is in the story’s world. Many times, it’s a week, a weekend or even one day. Films, like Monuments Men, which span years require strongly rooted characters with plenty of focus and development to compensate for the time skips. The real story, unfortunately, has the soldiers in pairs or on their own all across different parts of Europe for about half of the film.
Art is a precious thing. The real Monuments Men knew that and risked life and limb to protect a people’s culture. It is a truly commendable feat and I salute them. It was a decent story but didn’t translate well to a two hour film. Maybe a mini-series would have been better. Ironically, I believe a line in the movie about Hitler’s art prowess sums this film up nicely: “It’s not bad… it’s not good.”