2016.24: The Monuments Men (HD Streaming)
In this post-Saving Private Ryan film landscape, it is actually rather odd that The Monuments Men is so surprisingly lightweight. Evidently this is deliberate, but it leaves it feeling like two different movies. On the one hand, it is visually stunning, using quite extraordinary effects work to place the protagonists in the middle of post-D Day wartime Europe. It looks like an epic war movie, and so much another Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers, a gritty war movie like, say, the same year’s Fury, and yet the twist is that it’s actually nothing of the sort. Director Clooney is trying to weave a more intimate, family friendly, life-affirming tale about the true story of Frank Stokes (Clooney) who gathers a group of art experts and scholars on a mission to save Europe’s greatest works of art from being destroyed in the chaos of the Allied invasion and German retreat.
The cast is pretty impressive – no, strike that; Clooney has assembled a frankly fantastic cast that includes Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Bonneville. Clooney is no doubt hoping that casting such heavyweights will allow their screen personas to inform the scantily-sketched characters spread thinly across the films short but busy running time. It doesn’t really work- seeing such great actors with lightweight roles seems a bit of a waste, but I guess it engenders rapid audience empathy. Its just a pity the characters aren’t more rounded or convincing.
It does seem that the film spreads itself too thin trying to tell too much of a story, that it needed editing down. In its defence, it’s clear that the film is trying to be faithful and respectful to the true story and mindful of not shortchanging anyone. It’s a similar situation to Everest. Sometimes you try to be fair to everyone and it turns out detrimental to the film as a whole and ultimately fails the original objective.
Which is not to suggest that The Monuments Men is a bad film. It’s a noble one, certainly, and tells an interesting and entertaining story, but as its characters split up and travel all over war-torn Europe hunting down the artworks stolen by the Reich, the film spreads itself too thin. The individual storylines become vignettes and I guess they are intended to inform the whole, but instead I felt that the scattered approach instead weakens it. We don’t really feel everything we are intended to feel. The film may have been better served by focusing wholly on one pair of ‘heroes’ but I suppose the counter-argument would be that wouldn’t be the ‘whole’ story. Clooney walks a tightrope here and falters- to further the analogy, while he doesn’t really fall off he loses his balance a few times, the film losing the grace it should have.
Yet some sequences are mightily impressive. There’s a particularly poignant Christmas scene, when a recorded Christmas message from back home involving a warm Christmas song is played over a snow-swept Allied camp’s tannoy against visuals of wounded soldiers in a medical tent and one young man dying. It’s intimate and effective, a reminder of the contrast of the setting and the time of year and what our heroes are fighting for, and what they have at stake. It’s a well-written and directed scene, possibly the best of the film.
Elsewhere Clooney displays some skill at managing the great scale of things. He seems quite accomplished at knitting in the big effects shots and has a keen eye for composition. Its some feat to star in a film at the same time as directing it but he manages it well; its just a shame that the script, spread so thin telling so much, can’t afford more scenes as effective as the Christmas sequence, or characters a little more rounded and driven.
But what the hell, it’s a film with Bob Balaban in it (and he’s great, by the way). In my book, that makes it a film more than worth seeing, period.