Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Monuments Men

Alternate Title:  The Case of the Missing Comedy

One sentence synopsis:     A task force of artists, antiquarians, and curators must locate troves of priceless artwork stolen by the Nazis in the end stages of WWII.

Things Havoc liked:  Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazi regime perpetrated the greatest series of crimes in human history. One such crime, though not as high profile as the Holocaust, was the theft of tens and hundreds of thousands of works of art, mostly sculptures and paintings, from all across the continent of Europe. As the war wound down, the Allies assembled a unit, the "Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program", who spent the last two years of the war, and six years thereafter, doing their best to recover as much of Europe's cultural heritage as possible from the various hidden troves where the Nazis had hid it. Called the "Monuments men" for short, this film is the story of these men, as they cross Europe trying to stop the Germans from destroying their looted art, or the Soviets from looting it in turn as war reparations.

For the task of portraying this story, the German-American producers of this film have assembled a superb cast. George Clooney and Matt Damon play Lts Frank Stout and James Granger, Harvard-educated art curators from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, who convince the government to assemble a team to preserve what can be recovered by any means necessary. Among the other experts brought in are characters played by Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Bob Balaban, along with an international contingent including a Free French expert played by The Artist's Jean Durjardin and a curator from Paris played by Cate Blanchett. The characterization for this bevy of characters is somewhat limited (more on that later), but a collection of superlative actors this accomplished can't help but produce good work, even in somewhat mundane circumstances or encounters, such as a sequence when Murray and Balaban encounter a straggling German soldier in the woods and disarm him with a pack of cigarettes, or another, later on, when they unknowingly stop by the cabin of a Nazi art thief, and gradually begin to realize who they are dealing with. Clooney persists in playing himself, as he has in largely every film ever, but he and Damon play off one another well, and when the plot calls for someone to recite sugary dialogue over patriotic horn music about the importance of art to human wellbeing (more on that later as well), Clooney's one of the best in the business.

The film is not structured, more or less, as a single plot, but rather as a series of vignettes, as various teams of Monuments men break off and scatter across western Europe, seeking for art in mines, castles, and the homes of Nazi war criminals. Some are shot at, some killed, others find themselves in strange situations, but the episodic style of the movie, while defusing a great deal of narrative tension, does manage to convey the sense of these soldiers' actions as being a small element of a much larger tapestry, either the war in general, or the campaign to recover art in specific. The real MFAA program employed hundreds of American, British, and Allied experts, who combed Europe for years, and while I understand that the film has to concentrate on a few of them in order to tell the story at all, it's nice that the movie doesn't attempt to pull a U-571 and pretend that these men were the only ones to engage in these sorts of efforts.

Things Havoc disliked:  All of which is well and good in theory, but in practice, this film is simply a mess.

Advance previews for this film originally began coming out last September, with an intended release date around Christmas, and crucially, they portrayed the film as a comedy. At some point that fall, the film was pulled for additional post-production work and pushed back to a February release, not a good sign insofar as the studios' confidence levels are concerned. Moreover, the new trailers were playing the story straight, as a feel-good dramatic piece showcasing the good works these people were doing, leading me to believe that test screenings had gone disastrously badly, and editors were being brought in to salvage it. I mention all of this background because the film we have been given here bears all the hallmarks of one mutilated in editing to become something it was not originally intended to be. The film cannot, for instance, decide if it wants to be funny or not, trying to cross elements very little short of slapstick (Matt Damon steps on a landmine, for instance, and must find a way off without getting blown up), with heavy drama (the team proceeds to locate a barrel containing tens of thousands of extracted gold teeth). Admittedly, many of the individual scenes do work, either because the editorial patching is well done, or because these actors are good enough to carry them, but the overall effect is mood whiplash, robbing the movie of any momentum in terms of dramatic heft or comedic timing. It becomes a series of disconnected scenes, having nothing to do with one another, played in seemingly random order with little-to-no impact on the cast itself.

Indeed, the editorial seams in the story rob us not only of proper pacing, but also of a proper idea of just who these people are. There are no introductions for the various characters, save for a cursory voiceover listing their names and areas of expertise. We are given no time with them in training, or in preparation for their task in order to get to know them, and while several of them seem to know one another already, we have only the barest hints as to what their relationships are or how they can be expected to evolve. A British antiquarian, for instance, is [i]hinted[/i] at as having had some kind of dissolute past, but the exactitudes are never made clear, even though the movie treats his work as some kind of redemptive act of penance, complete with solemn speeches about how he has finally made good.  The reason for all this stasis may be that the characters don't evolve at all, as though the writers had no interest in the characters as characters, and preferred instead to simply use them as a means to show off the fact that Americans care about art. What few characters that do get a moment or two to actually develop are, of course, done poorly. Cate Blanchett's Claire Simone is an art curator in Paris who loses a brother to the Nazis and fights to prevent them from looting the French collection, and yet when the Americans do finally arrive she refuses categorically to help them find the stolen artwork, presumably because she is afraid they will keep it for themselves. Without getting into the politics of such a belief, what exactly is her plan? Do nothing in the hopes that the paintings will magically find their way back to their original owners? Or is the entire plot point invented to give her the excuse of later falling for Matt Damon's character and giving him the information she should have given him an hour and a half ago?

Furthermore, I hate to be pedantic, but, if you're going to make a film about World War II, based on a non-fiction book and rooted in the insistence that this is a true story, then the least you can do is try and get your facts straight. I'm not talking about minor quibbles like the proper functioning of land mines (they explode when you step on them, not off), but major matters like the date and time of the D-Day invasion, as this film has Clooney display a battle map to the President of the United States showing the invasion as having already occurred in August of 1943.  Worse still, while the film does avoid making the initiative a purely American one (though the non-Americans on the team tend to have a much shorter lifespan than their fellows), the Russians, who were dealing with their own recovery efforts, are effectively turned into the bad guys, as the movie seems to regard them as rapacious thieves on the same level as the Nazis themselves, seeking to loot all of Europe to please Stalin. The real monuments men spent much of their time not only locating stolen art, but laboring mightily to save what had simply been damaged, such as their efforts in Pisa, Florence, or Aachen. None of these things figure into this film, and while I'd understand those omissions in the context of presenting a coherent story, given that it does no such thing, I'm hard pressed to excuse it.

But all of these problems might even have been salvageable, save for the damning fact that this is one of the sappiest films I've seen since The Odd Life of Timothy Green back in 2012. While we do not have time, while watching this film, to actually develop characters, we apparently have plenty of time to linger on backlit shots of the American flag, to listen to horrible, vaguely-patriotic horn music accompanying everything the characters do like a choir of angels, or have George Clooney recite dull, cliche-laden speeches about how "art is important, guys!" The movie uses broad comedy when considering most of its characters' actions, before suddenly becoming as solemn as a deacon on Sunday when one of them must valiantly give their lives to protect the heritage of Western Civilization. Not only that, but it calls back to this theme some five or six times, going so far as to have the President of the United States personally ask the commander of this little unit if "it was worth it", when he considers the men who died to save the artworks in question, a question he of course answers with the assistance of bugles, soft lighting, and copious American flags. Perhaps, if I squint, I can conceive of a version of this film and this subject matter which might have worked. But this version is as sweet as cough syrup, to the point where even I, die hard WWII historian that I am, couldn't bear any more of it by the time the movie mercifully ends.

Final thoughts:   The Monuments Men, for all of my complaints, is not a terrible movie, but it is an almost aggressively mediocre one, mired in a directionless script written by studio hacks and then mutilated by editing into a rambling, disjointed mess. The sheer skill of the many great actors involved in the production, who no doubt thought they were making an important film on a great moment in the US Army's history, is all that keeps this film from being truly wretched, but are not enough to salvage a project that, judging from the evidence, was doomed from the beginning. The story of the men who saved the treasures of Western Civilization is a worthy one, and deserves a theatrical consideration of the highest quality, but the mere fact that the story is uplifting is no excuse for failure of this magnitude.

My suggestion? If somehow a terrible war ravages the globe once more, do not exert heroic efforts to preserve this film from the flames. Believe me, the corpus of human achievement will not be lessened by its absence.

Final Score:  4/10

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