February 7, 2014



THE MONUMENTS MEN:  Watch It At Home – George Clooney’s Film Is No Classic Work of Art

George Clooney’s THE MONUMENTS MEN is a startlingly complete failure.  It’s Clooney’s fifth film behind the camera (after Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck., Leatherheads, and The Ides of March), but it’s the most unformed, tentative film he’s made to date.  Clooney and his co-writer, Grant Heslov (he also co-wrote Good Night and Ides) never seem to have figured out a take on the story, and what they’ve come up with is terminally bland and routine.

The basic material was certainly promising enough.  Based on the nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, Monuments Men is about a group of unlikely World War II soldiers with a unique mission.  The squad (there are 7 of them in the movie), all too old to serve in regular Army posts, are recruited by Frank Stokes (Clooney) because of their expertise in the world of art:  Metropolitan Museum of Art curator James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and generally knowledgable Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban).  Along with translator Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), their task is to criss-cross Europe and try to rescue historic works of art the Nazis had stolen wherever they were in charge, from murdered Jews, museums, churches and elsewhere.  Hitler’s original plan had been to use the classical stolen art to furnish the gigantic Fuhrer Museum he intended to build in his home town as a monument to himself, while destroying the more modern works by artists like Picasso on general principle.  When the Allies invaded France and it became increasingly clear that Germany was going to lose the war, however, the Nazis decided to destroy all the hidden artworks rather than let it be recovered.

There are any number of approaches to the story that could have worked–a straightforward race-against-time thriller, a serious semidocumentary account, a focus on non-art experts who worked with the group, or a lighthearted Ocean’s Eleven-like heroic caper yarn, to name a few.  Certainly the cast Clooney chose suggests the latter, and early scenes seem to go that way too, making gags out of the middle-aged men having to go through basic training before they can ship out to Europe.  But Clooney’s heart never seems to be in the comedy, which doesn’t amount to much more than occasional banter (nearly all of it is in the trailer).  Yet until the last reel, there’s also little sense of a ticking clock that would create thriller momentum (and then it’s to beat the Russians, not the Germans).

Instead, Clooney and Heslov ploddingly follow the heroes, most of the time in pairs–Murray with Balaban, Dujardin with Goodman, and Damon with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a Parisian who had worked as assistant to the German who was rounding up the local art.  (One of the many puzzlements of the script is that although Claire is working with the Resistance and has kept copious notes on all the stolen art to help in its recovery, she’s arrested as a collaborator after Paris is retaken and when Granger arrives, seems not to be disputing her captivity very strongly.)  None of the characters are in any way memorable or complex (Bonneville, in a relatively small role, comes closest), which amounts to an awful waste of such a high-class cast, and although tragedy occasionally strikes the group, only a scene here or there has any emotional impact.  Plotting is at the conventional level where a group of people stare at a map, trying to make sense of its notations, and then someone goes “Hey, doesn’t that mean…?” and there’s the next breakthrough.  Clooney and Heslov resist no sentimentality, whether it’s playing a Christmas message from a soldier’s family over a camp PA system or having the artwork one man died to save show up literally in the last seconds before a trove of masterpieces will have to be abandoned.

Clooney’s misuse of himself as an actor is indicative.  His Stokes makes the occasional quip or two (usually when he has a scene with Damon), but is mostly softspoken, inspirational and dull; Clooney has often been compared to Cary Grant and Clark Gable over the years, but here he seems to be aiming at a latter-day Walter Pidgeon.  He’s not bad, exactly–no one in the cast is–but he uses about one-quarter of what he can bring to a role.  (Clooney has more character to play in his 20 minutes of Gravity than in this entire movie.)

The Monuments Men is Clooney’s least interesting piece visually as well, a shame for a story about great art.  Phedon Papamichael’s photography is fine, but he brings nothing to the wartime setting that hasn’t been seen before, and there’s no arresting rhythm or pace to Stephen Mirrione’s editing.  Alexandre Desplat’s score is generic.

It’s never easy to understand how a movie like Monuments Men can go so wrong.  This was a passion project for Clooney, one he fought to make for years, and the actors cut their fees in order to get it done.  It was the farthest thing from a contract job for anyone.  Yet somehow none of that passion made it onto the screen, nor did any of the smooth storytelling or emotional force of Clooney’s other films as a director.  Since Monuments Men was postponed from its original holiday-season opening, Clooney has been busy denying that there was anything wrong with the film (blame was placed on CG effects not being ready on time), but one hopes that when the cameras and microphones are put away, he knows better.  Any talented filmmaker is entitled to a flop, but it would be far worse if Clooney doesn’t recognize that he’s only managed an indifferent forgery of a movie that could have been truly great.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."