The Monuments Men has everything going for it. Hollywood’s Golden Boy George Clooney co-writes a script based on the World War II story about American soldiers who were tasked to find art that the Nazis stole, and he directs an incredible cast that includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, and Jean Dujardin (Oscar winner for The Artist). The batting average is so high that it’s shocking that Clooney doesn’t hit it out of the park.
There’s a lot of great moments here. After they appeared in The Talented Mr. Ripley together 15 years ago, it’s great seeing Damon and Blanchett together again. They have a dynamic chemistry that I hope they explore again sooner then a decade and half from now. While they don’t have fully drawn-out characters, the supporting cast find little moments to shine, both dramatically and comedically. Goodman and Dujardin are fun together, and their scene where things take a turn for the worse is outstanding. As Richard Campbell, Murray makes you laugh out loud, but his standout moment comes when he stops to listen to “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” as it’s played over a speaker in camp. He has no dialogue, but Murray creates a beautiful cinematic moment.
Clooney really makes this film work in isolated scenes, but he struggles to string all those moments together. He said publicly that he had trouble balancing the dramatic and comedic tones of the story, and it shows. The narrative is disjointed, and the editing is jarring, which is surprising since it’s edited by Stephen Mirrione, the Oscar winner for Traffic who also edited Go, Ocean’s Eleven, and 21 Grams. Clooney overloads the film with voiceover monologues and self-important speeches. As Frank Stokes, Clooney has a great moment where he’s speaking to the men over the radio and explains why their mission to save priceless works of art is important. The problem is that speech is repeated about 3 more times by various characters, including Stokes himself. We get it.
But Clooney can only screw this up so much. He’s got an interesting true story, an incredible group of actors, and an outstanding cinematographer in Phedon Papamichael. This easily should have been an Oscar contender, but it’s not. The Monuments Men ends up being a film that has its monumental moments, but fails to be a clear victory.