I feel bad giving a movie a negative review, especially when it contains an amazing cast. When I heard that Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, George Clooney (also director, producer and co-writer) Jean Durjardin and John Goodman had all come together to star in The Monuments Men, I was excited to say the least. The strength of the cast begs the question why, with an accompanying budget of 70 million dollars, the result was so disappointing. It seems to me that whoever was behind the scenes knew that this cast alone would gain the movie publicity and revenue, and so paid less attention to ensuring that the script and narrative of the movie were up to scratch.
When a World War 2 film is rated as 12A, there is a contradiction between the film’s portrayal of the era and the reality, which is off putting. The movie’s apparent intention, as stated by the preluding text of “based on true events”, didn’t quite work as the film itself lacked realism. An example of this is “Although the war is coming to an end it’s not less dangerous”- a direct quote by Clooney’s character, who also serves as an unnecessary narrator, seemed to me to be the understatement of the century. At times the movie was too simplistic for the heroic and historical event that it tries to convey- a true story of a platoon gathered to retrieve artistic masterpieces from the hands of the Nazis. For one, the characters portrayed the war as a trivial thing you gladly sign up for, willingly leaving their families and lives behind without batting an eyelid; the morals and the one sidedness of the characters resembled an American propaganda film from the 1950s, representing the American ideals of that era. There was a consistent motif of resisting temptations that one might face in the war (constant smoking, the occasional drink and the insidiously romantic aura of Paris) which didn’t quite work as believable aspects of the characters’ personas.
The main flaw for me, then, was the characters, not necessarily their portrayal but rather the way they were written. Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone, a curator who helped the French Resistance keep track of the stolen works of art, seemed to me the only effective dramatic character. The rest of the characters seemed to be there for decoration, and it quickly became evident that the cast were trying to do their best with what they were given, which was not a lot. When I walked out of the cinema, I couldn’t remember the characters’ names, which is a pretty bad sign after being with them for two hours. Another aspect of the film that did not work was the narrative: it became increasingly more jumbled as the film went on, working well more as individual scenes than as a logical narrative sequence. There were a few brilliant, emotional moments but they were sadly ruined with clichéd overhead narration and overly dramatic music, which served as cues tell the audience how to feel. In addition to the beautiful scenery, the movie did have impressive works of art to its advantage such as famous paintings and ancient sculptures, but these are facets of the movie that can be enjoyed independently; the film itself did nothing to enhance them. However, the cinematography and the lighting were impressive; some shots were indeed beautiful to look at and appreciate simply as a piece of cinema.
Overall, The Monuments Men couldn’t decide what it wanted to be- a comedy, a romance, a drama, or an action movie. Instead, it decided to blend everything together in a way that didn’t work, doing the exact opposite of what every good piece of cinema and work of art tries to do, which is “show, don’t tell”.