If George Clooney has a passion project there’s a fair chance it will get made. He’ll recruit a good cast and pick a good story to tell. All these things you can consider crossed off. Done. Dusted. This time round he chose to adapt a book: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel.
The plot, if you’re not familiar, is based on this true story. Ah, a dangerous Hollywood caveat you may cry, for ‘based on’ and what actually happened are often two very different things. But before we get to that, the story as it stands.
Near the end of WWII Frank Stokes (Clooney) persuades US President Roosevelt to let him put together a team to recover works of art stolen by the Nazis, then return said works to the rightful owners. As it’s based on a true story – one that’s crying out to be retold (having been told, in part, in other films before) – you can see why Clooney jumped on it.
It’s a noble and important part of history, one which hasn’t particularly been addressed in modern cinema. It’s also – potentially – epic in scope too. Beautiful locations, with an exciting dramatic need that drives our main characters; a ragtag bunch of unlikely heroes that they are. The pieces are all in place.
So… what do we get? A drama? A comedy? A caper? Well, none of these really. Or bits of all of them, depending on your point of view.
It begins with a montage of Art Curators Assemble!, with Stokes putting together an ageing team which, on casting, look to mostly be there for comedy purposes: Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman etc. The trailer too, suggests a ‘caper’; Ocean’s Eleven with Nazis or Saving Private Ryan the comedy years perhaps? Puts me in mind of a running gag in ‘Allo ‘Allo! which focused on the Nazis and the French Resistance attempting to keep hold of ‘The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies’ by Van Klomp. So it’s a comedy right? Well, no. Not exactly.
What we actually get is a rather plodding and inert tale of a bunch of guys that – upon finding they’ll get no help from superior officers in the field – decide to attempt to protect and recover the art largely on their lonesome. Nothing wrong with that you might say. But it’s tackled in such a pedestrian way that, as a viewer, you find yourself desperate for some jeopardy. Tanks, guns, evil Nazis… something.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the main cast spend precious little time together. Once in France they split up and head off across Europe on various missions. It’s not all doom and gloom, there’s some good scenes along the way and the cast do what they can with the moments they have, but it just feels languid and, ultimately, unengaging.
And, as is the way with Hollywood butchering history, there’s a fairly heavy focus on Americans saving the day, largely ignoring the real life efforts by the British in this project. But we’re used to that, and could forgive this lapse if the script had some zip and vigour about it.
Despite all that, it’s important this film was made and the story was told. But maybe a TV miniseries would have given these characters room to breathe. This approach worked incredibly well for Band of Brothers. I guess we’ll never know now… but hats off to Clooney for an admirable effort.