George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is Not as Cool as George Clooney Himself: A Review

For a movie so obsessed with the accuracy of smoking habits during WWII, you'd think "The Monuments Men" would get everything else right.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Director: George Clooney
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville
Runningtime: 118 minutes
Rating: PG-13

The Monuments Men is rated PG-13 for “historical smoking.” The designation may seem chuckle-worthy but don’t laugh: it’s a necessary qualifier in the face of repeatedcalls to slap an automatic R rating on any movie featuring nicotine use.

It would be a historical impossibility to make a period-accurate World War II film without cigarettes, since smoking rates for white American males born between 1911-30 hit a peak saturation point of 67% in the ‘40s and ‘50s. This is an issue George Clooney’s confronted before with Good Night and Good Luck, a moment in the life of chain smoker and eventual lung cancer casualty Edward R. Murrow. “I'm a non-smoker and I had nine great aunts and uncles die from lung cancer, including my Aunt Rosemary,” he explained in 2005. “I think that it's dangerous to glamorize it.” But history’s history, and Clooney is averse to "white washing" (his word) an era when “you even had the doctor checking your heart with a cigarette in his mouth.”

That image must’ve stuck with Clooney, who uses it as his movie’s first tobacco moment: dually smoking patient and doctor have to cough before an examination can go on. That’s part of the introductory montage of the baker’s half dirty dozen tasked with finding art stolen by the Nazis and returning the pieces to their rightful provenance. It’s a non-glamorous way for Clooney to introduce an essential component of his movie: smokes will make the peace between a stray German soldier who sneaks up on monuments men Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, give least-known actor-soldier Dimitri Leonidas an excuse to stand and casually eavesdrop on German officers, etc. 

What’s puzzling is why Clooney stuck to his historical guns so hard on this particular point while predictably reshaping historical data that a quick Wikipedia scan can easily bring to your attention. It’s not worth going through point by point: there were about 400 members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, not a lean seven, which is just the tip of the iceberg. Facts are irrelevant to cinematic success, and the question is what Clooney wants to achieve. 

Monuments Men was supposed to drop in December but got delayed because Clooney said he had trouble figuring out its correct tone. Judging by the results, he gave up on trying to figure that out and settled for making a film as weightless as possible. Devoid of suspense or bathos, Monuments Men floats from one scene to another, often without leaving a trace, which is preferable to overplaying one’s hand.

The film's unexpectedly vitriolic reviews baffle me, because there are some terrific scenes here. Most notably, there's a tense rural country house meeting deftly leaping up a gear from mediocre exposition to black comedy when Murray and Balaban meet a Vichy France officer, ending with Balaban tersely informing the officer (in English, to spare his wife) that he knows all his paintings are stolen from the Rothschilds, before inadvertently baiting the man’s kids into a reflexive “Heil Hitler!” Throughout, Clooney has the instinctual problem-solving curiosity of a director determined not to do mediocre shot/reverse-shot coverage: his preferred way of shooting group conversations is to let the camera trail left-to-right and back again from one pair of faces to another, following the dialogue trail as it makes it way through a small group. I like his moves, even if the movie never figures out how to integrate them into one continuous motion. 

The simplest and most plausible explanation for this film’s existence is that Clooney wanted to make the kind of straightforward Greatest Generation Kicks Ass feel-good war movie that’s long been out of fashion. World War II last hit American screens on a significant wide release basis with Inglourious Basterds, and D-Day’s last significant rendition came with Saving Private Ryan’s opening in 1998. The former is uncomfortable revisionism originating from Tarantino’s usual obscurely personal cinephilic viewpoint rather than military history; the latter is famed for its game-changing carnage and concerted attempts to remove the possibility of even accidentally glamorizing battlefield combat.

Clooney runs a more straightforwardly patriotic game, to such an extent that it’s kind of disorienting. There are brassy heroic horns accompanying the Americans and grateful French people welcoming them into the countryside to help them with their quest. The movie ends not with a jab at the Germans but our once-and-forever enemy/current Olympics host the Russians, who are running around unlawfully appropriating others’ art. Our boys get out in time with the loot but leave an American flag obnoxiously hanging to taunt their opponents. 

Why make a movie about the eternal value of art as such? Clooney doesn’t appear to be a devotee, and if he’s into art appreciation, that’s not a particularly well-known fact. The rhetoric’s dutiful enough (“Make sure that the statue of David is still standing or the Mona Lisa is still smiling.”), but each piece of art is glimpsed once or not at all before being relegated to out-of-focus background fodder.

I’d be opening myself up to some kind of automatic pillorying if I didn’t note that the types of art concerned are shamelessly Eurocentric and the movie’s explicit viewpoint is kind of anachronistic. The art’s a way to make the most bloodless possible movie about pure, good-natured Americans just trying to help the world (Matt Damon doesn’t even cheat on his wife in France), a supremely unreconstructed take on WWII that might’ve been too sunny in 1946. Clooney exhorts his troops to help preserve art from destruction, because when a civilization’s artifacts are destroyed, “It’s like they never existed.” That’s also a mission statement: apparently we have to honor that kind of near-dead, determinedly sunny take on World War II one last time before the greatest generation kicks off for good.

Vadim Rizov is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He tweets at @vrizov.

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