I wish I could tell you that George Clooney’s new film (he stars and directs) is a wonderful and entertaining piece of work, but since I am incapable of lying to you, the best I can say is that it’s not altogether awful. Sorry.
Having read the book on which the film is based, I feel especially well qualified to analyse both why Clooney decided to make a movie out of it, and why it was a bridge too far. The book is a cracking good read, an account of the handful of men commissioned by Roosevelt to go to Europe in the wake of the Allied invasion and try to rescue, retrieve or protect as much as possible of the Fine Art, Monuments and Archives as they possibly could. This involved a good deal of risk, the occasional death, and a close alliance with a Frenchwoman who worked at the Jeu de Paume.
The Monuments Men were led by George Stout, a charismatic, delightful and wholly committed art conservation expert, and if ever a man was born to play him, George Clooney was. Stout had a group of other art experts, some of whom are loosely represented by the likes of Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman. The group of art experts spread out across Europe and managed to recover or discover a great deal of what we regard as the greatest works of art of the last 500 plus years.
What a great story. Ideal for a film, right? Well, no. For one thing, these men were spread all over the place, and rarely communicated with each other. Their work consisted of a lot of leg work, research, determination and good fortune. It is a generalised story, not a specific one, and film narrative requires something individual. So George and his mate Grant Heslov have tried to remould the material into something more multiplex-friendly. If I was being unkind or simplistic, I would say that they have come up with a story line that comes over as a cross between Saving Private Ryan and Ocean’s 11. A group of buddies range over Europe trying to save Art from the bad guys. They laugh, wisecrack, and get tough when required to (hardly ever).
Oh yes, and we need a bit of romance. Cue Cate Blanchett as Clare Simon (in real life, Rose Valland), the dedicated art curator in Paris who managed to log every piece of art looted by Goering, and gave the information (after a period of deciding whether to trust him) to James Rorimer (the Damon character). All well and good, but there is a painfully misjudged scene when for reasons unknown, Cate is required to try and seduce Damon, despite his being married. It’s clumsy, unnecessary and downright misplaced, and just one example of how the film goes wrong.
Elsewhere there are signs of late night editing which tries (and fails) to make the film hang together, but it simply won’t work. There is no story arc on which the whole edifice hangs, just a number of scenes and characters which feel disconnected and random. The actors have very little to work with; just a series of half baked characteristics (Damon speaks French badly, Murray and Balaban have half-hearted male banter) which are a good less than the sum of their parts.
It pains me to say all this. I yield to no one in my enthusiasm for George as actor, director and all round good egg, but that is not enough to make this camel fly. By all means go and see it, and admire the work that these heroic men puled off 70 years ago, and from which we all still benefit so enormously. But if you’re expecting something special, lower your expectations to knee level, and find what you can to enjoy.
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