The heart of The Monuments Men is in the right place. A historical drama set during World War II, it's an affectionate throwback to Hollywood's golden era, recreating the spirit of war pictures from the '50s and '60s. It's the latest from George Clooney, who directs, co-writes and stars, working with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov to mount a wonderfully old-fashioned war film which was initially intended for the 2013 awards season. However, the release shift to early 2014 does make sense - while The Monuments Men is often compelling adult entertainment, it's also an undeniably flawed effort which cannot quite come together as well as it should. Most notably absent here is cohesion, as the film amounts to a string of vignettes which lack connective tissue. Still, Clooney stages each of the various set-pieces with finesse, and it's admirable that this is a character-driven picture as opposed to a battlefield-centric endeavour.
With WWII entering its latter stages, the Nazis are looting homes and museums, stealing countless pieces of priceless art for Hitler's private collection. Art conservationist Frank Stokes (Clooney) is less than pleased about Hitler's intentions, gaining approval to go behind enemy lines and secure as much precious art as possible. Assembling an allied team of soldiers consisting of specialists and historians - including James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) - Stokes travels to Europe, splitting up the men as they comb through France and Germany for leads in their search. While in Paris, Granger also meets secretive museum employee Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who witnessed the Nazis stealing art and may be able to assist the men in finding various hidden masterpieces in order for them to be returned to their rightful owners.
The Monuments Men is based on a true story, but it's heavily fictionalised - the names of the main players were changed, and the script reduces the titular gang of soldiers from a few dozen down to only seven. While a sprawling three-hour epic with a bigger ensemble would've been more preferable, accuracy has never been a strong suit of Hollywood war epics, and Clooney's picture works effectively enough on its own terms as a dramatisation.
Although the characters are somewhat developed as we observe their exploits on the battlefield, it feels as if a huge chunk of film is missing from the movie's early stages. Basic training takes all of five minutes before the guys are sent into war-torn Europe, unwisely skimming through crucial character development to get to the meat and potatoes of the plot. The Dirty Dozen dedicated more than half of its runtime to plot set-up and character development, but The Monuments Men skips such essentials to bewildering effect. As a result, we get tiny bits and pieces of information about each of these guys, but none of them become fully three-dimensional. Furthermore, there's not enough of a backbone to the narrative; it's all over the shop, and none of the individual stories of the men achieve full lift-off.
Clooney aims for two distinct tones here: a jolly, comedic men-on-a-mission vibe, and a dramatic tone, with a number of scenes showing the severity of war. However, the movie winds up feeling disjointed, as the tonal shifts are not properly negotiated. Nevertheless, The Monuments Men is an enormously handsome motion picture, benefitting from slick production values and superb artistry in every technical aspect. Phedon Papamichael's cinematography is vibrant and sophisticated, evoking a 1950s vibe, while the gentle score by Alexandre Desplat amplifies the power of the story. As to be expected considering the $70 million budget, there's a keen sense of authenticity to the period recreation; sets, costumes and locations are simply gorgeous, maintaining the illusion that this is WWII. Clooney also handles many of the set-pieces beautifully, orchestrating a few fun sequences and some touching moments (a scene set on Christmas Eve is particularly poignant). The Monuments Men is not a battlefield epic akin to Saving Private Ryan, thus images of violence are scarce and the movie is PG-13. However, miraculously, this approach does not undercut the production, and that is no mean feat.
Under Clooney's directorial watch, the performers are flawless from top to bottom. Even though character development is minimal, the all-star cast do an laudable job of carving out a distinct on-screen persona, making sure we never mistake one for another. Clooney is unsurprisingly strong, remaining perpetually focused despite the added pressure of directing the picture. Damon is just as good, and he shares his strongest moments with Blanchett, who's exceptional in her small part, espousing a magnificently lived-in accent. The underused Hugh Bonneville is another standout - his story is easily the most affecting, and he brings great gravitas to the character. Digging further into the supporting cast, John Goodman and Bill Murray are great picks for their respective roles, adding plenty of colour to the proceedings. Rounding out the main players, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban both hit their marks beautifully. Unfortunately, though, since the titular men are often split up, there is not enough of a group dynamic, which is disappointing considering the talent involved.
The Monuments Men would be better served as a miniseries in the vein of Band of Brothers, which would be able to follow a larger ensemble without losing the story's intimacy. One must wonder how much material was left on the cutting room floor, too, as the movie possesses the earmarks of a motion picture that was extensively trimmed in post-production. As it is, The Monuments Men is an interesting misfire which comes close to greatness. The film's technical achievements remain exceptional, and there are a number of brilliant segments and moments throughout the two-hour runtime which render it worth seeing in spite of its flaws.