The Art of War
I like George Clooney. I've enjoyed his screen performances ever since the first movie I saw him in, which was From Dusk Till Dawn, far too many years ago for me to comfortably contemplate. I even didn't think he was too bad as Batman, though the film in question is another matter. I have come to admire him all the more following his reinvention of himself as a progressively-inclined hyphenate, making a series of impressively entertaining and intelligent films like The Ides of March, Good Night and Good Luck, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I will give a sympathetic hearing to anything he cares to promote in my direction.
And the trailer for his latest project, The Monuments Men, makes a good, stirring pitch, for what looks like it's going to be a rousing, old-fashioned movie with the best of ideals at its heart. In addition to writing, producing, and directing the film, Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a senior art historian who makes a heartfelt pitch to the US government: the year is 1943, and the outcome of the Second World War is no longer in doubt. However, the months ahead will see the majority of Europe's greatest cultural treasures placed in desperate peril as the war rages around them – to say nothing of the standard Nazi procedure of stripping any significant cultural items from any territory they occupy.
Bearing this in mind, Clooney and his sidekick Matt Damon lead a crack team of character actors (Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) into the war zone with a view to either protecting said cultural treasures or retrieving them from the hands of the Third Reich...
The full-blown war movie has gone a little out of fashion these days, and The Monuments Men is by no means what you'd call an action adventure. Instead, it is more of a comedy-drama, albeit one motivated by the noblest of concerns – in interviews, Clooney himself has said it originated out of his own desire to make a film which was not, on some level, a cynical one.
As I said, I like Clooney, and I'm all for idealism, and if the film is arguing for the vital importance of culture as part of the bedrock of civilisation, then I'm absolutely with it all the way – but while The Monuments Men has some moments of real quality, on the whole the film is a bit of a disappointment when compared to some of Clooney's previous work. The trailer is great at pitching the central premise of the film – a sort of high-minded amalgam of The Dirty Dozen, Dad's Army, and (possibly stretching a point) The Da Vinci Code – but the movie itself is less successful at turning the premise into a satisfying narrative.
For one thing, I get the impression that this movie is rather less of an epic than Clooney would have liked it to be, clocking in at a smidge under two hours, and the main consequence of this is that the whole putting-the-crew-together element of the story is raced through in the course of the opening credits. As a result, the early scenes of banter and camaraderie take place between a bunch of people we don't actually know that well, and the effect is rather like going off on an adventure with a bunch of complete strangers. In this kind of film the first act is everything, and the film never quite recovers from this bumpy start.
The movie also struggles to accommodate the sheer scope of the story it's trying to tell – as the characters admit at several points, the numbers involved are mind-boggling, and the story ranges across practically the entirety of western and central Europe. Forging a coherent narrative out of all this proves extremely difficult. In the end the film opts to focus on the hunt to rescue a few particularly significant pieces of art, with some other episodes woven into the story, but the final effect is still that of a film which is a collection of disparate bits and pieces. Some of these are effectively funny, or moving, or tense, but they don't quite cohere into a really great film.
Perhaps it's just that the ideas which The Monuments Men is trying to explore are too big and abstract to lend themselves to a film of this kind. Certainly the movie itself seems unable to quite decide on what its central message is – 'Watch yourselves! No piece of art is worth your life!' Clooney warns his team as they disembark in Normandy, but by the end of the film he's stating the exact opposite to justify some of the sacrifices made in the course of the story. Hmmm. Inevitably, when dealing with the issue of cultural obliteration during the Second World War, the spectre of the Holocaust is raised at several points in the course of the film, but it never quite comes up with a way of really engaging with this beyond an uncomfortable, reverent silence.
Still, the performances are good and it's well mounted, and it's not what you'd actually call a bad film – it just really struggles to convert its good intentions and big ideas into the meat and drink of narrative film-making. I won't deny it was a bit of a disappointment to me, but I still wouldn't describe it as a bad film – average, more than anything else. One of Clooney's minor works, I suspect, but still laudable on many levels.