If The Monuments Men were a period of art, it would be neoclassicism. The film has many strong elements to it: a great story, rich themes, some excellent scenes and a cast that, on paper at least, can’t possibly miss; yet for as great as it may look on the outside there is something lacking at the heart of the work. As with neoclassicism, it draws inspiration from the great art of earlier periods while doing nothing to exceed them or provide much which is new or vital, all while being very interested in its own importance.
There’s obvious greatness to be mined from Monuments Men beginning with that most basic element of all filmmaking: the story. Among the hundreds of World War II films made in past decades and those that continue being made every year, including the semi-annual British prestige films starring Colin Firth (looking at you, The King’s Speech and The Railway Man), very few have even mentioned Hitler’s attempt to seize or destroy all of Europe’s art.
It’s a fascinating side-note of history, one filled with potentially poignant statements about the importance of artistic expression to both society and humanity’s existence and the idea of immortality through art. Similarly, any cast that includes Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and John Goodman alone should be a hit, and that’s not even counting the marquee players of George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett. Sadly, the story, the themes and the cast are never fully utilized.
Every artist or appreciator of art in the world should manage some level of agreement with the importance that the film places on painting, sculpture and architecture. It’s unfortunate than that this theme is hit too broadly, bypassing the sharp, emotional core for a duller, more sentimental look at its subject. It’s like staring at a painting where one can admire the brushstrokes, the sentiment of the artist, its place in time, the plays of shadow and depth, even its flaws, but instead just smiling at its pretty colors. Of the two scenes which truly explore the role of art in the individual life, one is profound while the other just tries to be.
In its own art Monuments Men paints only the shallowest picture. Its characters are unexamined, even down to barely identifying them by more than occupation or national origin. The whole film lacks any sense of energy, tension or even action. Scenes which are meant to be dramatic come off as either small or, in one very important unfortunate instance, kind of silly. Scenes which are meant to be comedic just aren’t. The outstanding supporting cast of Murray, Goodman and Balaban are given very little to work with other than a couple of interesting but unoriginal occurrences while casting them adrift on unexplained side missions. The few scenes which include them all are much better than those which don’t, showing the film that Monuments Men could have been.
Yes, the film is wonderful in its full-throated argument on the importance of art in the world, the necessity of completely impractical used canvases and carved rocks. It even carries an implied horror at the thought of wiping out entire civilizations and millions of lives just by destroying their art. But the film itself is too bland to be vital. Sadly, despite its good intentions, if The Monuments Men is remembered at all, it will be as a minor work.