Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney clambers back into the director’s chair for the fifth time with Second World War comedy caper, The Monuments Men (2014). Heading up yet another ensemble cast, including Cate Blanchett, The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, John Goodman and Bill Murray, Clooney plays Frank Stokes, an art historian at the Fogg Museum (based on the real life George Stokes who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, or MFFA division). With presidential blessing, Stokes takes it upon himself to gather a group of like-minded art enthusiast who must travel to Europe to project the world’s treasures from the clutches of the Nazis.
In reality, the actual life ‘Monuments Men’ were a huge task force who, over the course of the conflict, recovered over five million artefacts from the Nazis. In Clooney’s latest endeavour, this is streamlined down to a ragbag collection of seven international scholars who, through the course of the movie, pair off to recover particular items on their own madcap adventures. The set up for all of this is more than a little reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven (2001), with the American flag often accompanied by clichéd Nazis jackbooting around the European theatre. Despite some fascinating subject matter, the hotchpotch screenplay unravels before it’s even had a chance to get going. The patriotism is tiresome and the clichés near unforgivable, but the real problem lies in the constant self-justification.
We’re asked time and time again whether men should die for the preservation of art, with awfully sentimental dialogue questioning just who will make sure “the Mona Lisa is still smiling” or that the Statue of David is “still standing”. There’s almost a sense that Clooney doth protest too much – so concerned with convincing his audience that the work these men did was vital that he forgets about the actual story behind them. Whilst deeply problematic, there’s still the odd moment when the film shows signs of life. In particular, Downtown Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville – who plays an alcoholic, bumbling British gent – also offers one of the movie’s finest moments. Clooney’s ambition can’t be denied and he wears his passion on his sleeve, but watching The Monuments Men feels all too much like sitting on a grandfather’s knee as he misremembers past exploits.
This review was originally published on 15 February 2014 as part of our Berlin Film Festival coverage.